Meeting Jane Goodall: an unlikely encounter


Living legend Jane Goodall was in Belgium in early December 2022, on one of the many stops she's been making to raise environmental awareness around the world. As a volunteer for the Jane Goodall Institute I helped to organize the gala dinner "An Evening of Hope" where she was the guest of honor. I vehemently hoped meeting my hero face to face. But I wasn't the only one with high hopes of meeting Jane Goodall, and it turned out it wasn't easy at all to approach her. But unexpectedly, the stars aligned and an opportunity arose to have my little moment with Jane Goodall. But how did our paths cross and how did my collaboration with the JGI start?

Author: Kathelijne Bonne. Photo at top: Jane Goodall on 2 Dec. 2022, at Square Brussels, pictured by Uli Schillebeeckx. 

Jane and Flint in 1960 (watercolour by K. Bonne, 2020)
Jane and Flint in 1960 (watercolour by K. Bonne, 2020)

Jane Goodall is the behavioral biologist (ethologist) who was the very first, in the 1960s as a 26-year-old, to study our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, in Tanzania. She brought a breath of fresh air to the dusty, authoritarian world of behavioral science. Scholars then thought that animals had no emotions like humans, and that humans were far outside - or above - nature. But Jane did not know that, fortunately, because she had not attended university and was hence unbiased. She would prove her worth by forging other paths and breaking many taboos regarding human-animal-nature relationships, besides from delivering an incredible amount of invaluable information on chimp behaviour and securing a decade-long uninterrupted study on wild chimps which continues today. 


I remember when I first heard of Jane's existence. It was in the 90s, when I was a somewhat unruly teenager, hanging on the couch, watching TV.

Janes brave colleague Dian Fossey was better known then, and had come to my attention thanks to the film Gorillas in the Mist, one of my favorite movies. Tragically Dian was murdered in 1985. Although Dian could no longer continue her work, she was in many ways Jane's equal. In her published letters a deep respect for her beloved gorillas, an open mind and a good dose of humor shine through.

But Dian Fossey was not the only lady studying great apes. I had just discovered that there was also a chimpanzee lady: Jane Goodall. (And let's not forget the orangutan lady: Biruté Galdikas). Known as the Trimates, or Leakey's Angels, the three women were chosen by Dr. Louis Leakey to do research on different species of great apes.

Jane's gaze

That time I saw Jane on TV - maybe almost thirty years ago? - the now world-famous woman with the ponytail was sitting in a boat on Lake Tanganyika. She was travelling somewhere between Gombe Stream Reserve, the place where she studied chimpanzees, and the town of Kigoma, the base from which Gombe was supplied. But Jane looked away from the lake shores. She gazed in the other direction, across the water and the far horizon, her eyes full of concern. For on the once lush green slopes, there was less and less forest. The forests were being cleared and she did not want to see the barren wasteland. Gombe, a protected area, was still only an island of forest when it used to be part of a great belt of tropical jungle.

Fieldwork in Tanzania

I loved animals since childhood and it was somehow destined that I would study veterinary medicine. But for my eighteenth birthday, my parents gave me a book, published in 1999: "Life: An unauthorised biography, a natural history of th first 4 billion years of life on Earth" by Richard Fortey, a British Museum paleontologist. It opened up a new world ... and I went on studying Geology instead. In 2002, I got the chance to do fieldwork in Tanzania for my thesis. Indeed, I had become fascinated by the Great Rift Valley, which had forged the magnificent landscapes of East Africa, and in which the Leakeys had made many anthropology discoveries.

I headed to the Rukwa Basin in the Katavi region in the deep west of Tanzania - after five memorable days of driving by jeep from Dar Es Salaam during which I saw much of the country, and by the same route Jane had traveled countless times. In the Rukwa basin I would learn about the geomorphology, tectonic fault lines, and lake level fluctuations of Lake Rukwa, which was interesting because once in the past the Rukwa and Tanganyika lakes formed one gigantic lake.

After the fieldwork, I studied satellite images and aerial photographs. But I noticed something strange and unnatural on the imagery. Besides geological structures, there was something I couldn't put my finger on: Straight stripes scratched through with shorter stripes, perpendicular to each other. Too tight and straight to have grown organically. What on earth was that?

Claws in the earth's skin

I realized that I actually knew what those stripes were: driveways on which large sawyers and trucks could drive on and off to cut down trees and transfer the big logs, most likely illegally.

It looked like some savage creature had put its claws into the skin of the earth. Of course, the signs of forest clearing that I noticed were not a new discovery. It had been going on for decades, and Jane Goodall had been a direct witness to the transformation of the environment all along. Understandably, she did not want to see the forest destruction and turned away her gaze. But there was something else that could be read in her eyes: determination. By then, she was already in full action against the decline of nature in Tanzania, and nothing would stop her.

Jane leaves Gombe

To amplify her call to stand up for nature, she had founded the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) in 1977 to protect wild animals and their habitat, together with local communities. Jane knew that the rural people of Tanzania were poor and had not much choices. Participating in deforestation was a way, often the only one, to make some money. Involving locals in JGI's actions could help turn the tide.

But at a 1986 conference in Chicago, Jane became aware of the enormous scale of nature destruction in Africa, and she realized that her beloved chimpanzees really didn't stand a chance. She ceased her research in Gombe, her little piece of heaven, to throw herself fully onto conservation, awareness raising and activism. To do so, she's been travelling the world for decades, and is away from home for over 300 days per year, and continues doing so today. As I write, Jane, after an intense Belgian weekend, has long since flown to the West Coast of the U.S., hopping from one state to another, speaking to people in fully booked halls, propelled by the energy of realizing that she is making a difference.

The Belgian JGI was founded in 2005 and is one of many JGI offices worldwide. In 2020 I asked general director Anouska Plasmeijer if I could contribute as a volunteer for translation and writing.

From petroleum to activism

I had previously worked in petroleum exploration (Getech, England) and in technical translation, but after those industry experiences, I wanted to work for a greener cause, learn about the activism world and collaborate with like-minded people.

Like many geologists and geophysicists 'of my generation' I had been drawn, or better say sucked into exploration industry shortly before the economy started to collapse. Soon after graduating, I had also approached research institutions such as FAO to work for greener causes but they kept their doors firmly closed to people who 'only' had a Master degree and not a PhD, while exploration companies welcomed us with open arms and without much fuss or burocracy. At Getech, I helped reconstruct the palaeogeography of the world for several geological time-slices, I investigated how rivers evolved through time, including the Amazon, Zambezi, Nile and Congo. I got to figure out why the Niger makes such a great bend. In short, it was great fun and an excellent working environment, but the single, ultimate goal of all the research troubled me: defining the nature and distribution of petroleum source, reservoir and cap rocks. Still, the work itself helped me better understand the earth as a system so nothing was lost knowledge-wise, only that I felt I had ended up on the wrong side of things.

Luckily, Anouska needed someone for JGI Belgium and we have regularly collaborated since. Last summer, she did a great announcement to all of us at JGI: Jane Goodall comes to Belgium! Together with the other volunteers, I was summoned to help organize the public lecture, and the day after, the gala dinner on December 3 at Martin's Château du Lac in Genval in Wallonia.

Just go see her!

Expectations and tensions had been very high for weeks before. Besides from the preparatory work, I was stressing about whether I'd be able to talk face to face to Jane or not, because nobody could promise whether there'll be a timeslot for that. The great day dawned and we worked preparing the event, the evening fell, guests started to arrive and Jane too made her entrance. Time rolled on and Jane was occupied all the time. I hoped she might come over to the volunteers' table to have a little chat with us, but she didn't get the chance. The evening was too full, with inspired speeches, a raffle, an auction, and in the meantime, many courses of a vegan dinner were served. I hesitantly walked towards the table of honor a few times, but guests swarmed around Jane all the time, so I quietly went back to my tablemates. Besides, Jane was said to be exhausted and drained, understandably. I gave up and accepted that my window of opportunity had closed and I'd better enjoy the rest of the evening as had met many other wonderful people.

But then I bumped into two ladies from the board of JGI Belgium. I expected them to agree that Jane was actually too tired, but instead, they urged me to jump at my chance: Just go to her, if that is what you really want! And with Jane's own words in the back of my mind "take every opportunity you get", I worked up the nerve, walked up to her and sat down next to her. Keep it short, said Tanya Pérez Echeverría, co-president of JGI Global, who was watching over Jane and took care of her, which was obviously necessary.

Great conjunction

What a moment! And what an angel! How attentive and kind Jane looked at me as I rattled on nervously and broadly grinning. She looked straight into my eyes and willingly absorbed the cascade of things I told her. She lit up when I started talking about my kids who also love nature and animals, and together we looked at a collage and a painting the kids and I had made especially for her.

Jane, 88, has been traveling the world since the 1980s. In the process, she touched the hearts of millions of people. (thanks Karolien Van Diest for taking pictures!)
Jane, 88, has been traveling the world since the 1980s. In the process, she touched the hearts of millions of people. (thanks Karolien Van Diest for taking pictures!)

Before I even knew it, it was time to stand up and the moment was over, leaving me in a daze and full of disbelief that I had managed to share a moment with Jane. Less than fifteen minutes later, in a flash, I saw Jane's silvery ponytail disappear out of the dining hall. Tanya's arm protective over her shoulders. In shock, I realized how close I had been to never actually meeting her.

What a fortunate twist of fate that I had bumped into Els and Hege from the JGI Board just at the right moment! As a geologist, I can only describe their contribution with a planetary metaphor: Like Saturn and Jupiter on Christmas 2020, the planets slid past each other and for a very brief moment a great conjunction occurred, one brief window, one unique moment, that I took.

A saint?

Past summer, I wrote an article about a famous saint from Spain: Our Lady of the Dew (Virgen del Rocío). Each year, she triggers a massive pilgrimage in drought-struck Doñana National Park in Andalucia. There are a few parallels with Jane. Jane is a living legend, almost a saint. Not just the work she does but the way she interacts with people, as I have had the opportunity to experience myself.

Our Lady of the Dew actually descends from a mythical Queen of the Marshes from long-ago pre-Christian times, a kind of protectress of nature or mother earth. The queen of the marshes set foot in Spain thousands of years ago with the Phoenicians, who worshiped her under the name Astarte. And to the Egyptians she is Hathor. 

Lady of the Animals

As I look into the future, I see the great climate crisis hitting society, biodiversity collapsing as it did during the Permian, societies shaking on their foundations, and great ruptures in humanity forming. We will return to the Middle Ages and people will exclaim: If only we had taken better care of nature!

But in dark times, people hold on fiercely to myths, legends and saints. And because Jane touched so many people and has a saint-like quality, she will remain etched in our collective memory, and her memory will be passed on to future generations, who must build a new society. Whether Jane's name will be remembered no one knows, but like the Lady of the Dew, the legend will remain, and Jane is exceptional because she is already a legend in life.

Let's give Jane Goodall the honour of becoming the Lady of the Animals. It may be far-fetched, but a little mysticism in this tough world is sometimes welcome. May the Lady of the Animals then guide posterity to better times ... for that is what she is working so hard for today and for which she has given up time with family, the work with the chimpanzees she loves deeply and her private life as well.


Further readings: While Jane Goodall was responsible for major paradigm shifts on how we think of animals, a shift of how we think about our own ancestors may be due: According to the very plausible Waterside Hypothesis, our early hominid ancestors evolved into upright walking humans with remarkable features as a result of wading and living near water. Staying in Africa, read about the Zambezi and the Smoke-that-thunders, on rivers that change through time and the mesmerizing Victoria Falls. This natural wonder lies at the southernmost tip of the Great Rift Valley, a belt of natural wonders dotted with volcanoes, tropical forests and large, incredibly deep lakes. The northermost tip of the rift lies in the Middle East, at the junction of deadly tectonic fault lines that so tragically shook Turkey and Syria early 2023. These geological features link up with the Mediterranean, that 5 million years ago dried out completely during the Messinian crisis. That being said, the Mediterranean is actually the last vestige of the vasnished Tethys Sea, which covered huge swaths of the Sahara Desert, leaving ancient fossil whales (with legs!) lying under the scorching desert sun