Jane Goodall Says Pandemic Is Due to 'Little Respect for the Natural World' but There's Hope for This Planet Yet

When you think of Jane Goodall, chimpanzees likely are the first images that come to mind, but the global icon's 60 years of work goes well beyond saving wildlife. At 86, Goodall is still traveling the globe 300 days a year, with an indefatigable drive to change our world by empowering local communities, younger generations and even "bad guy" oil companies so they have not only a fascination for our planet but also a responsibility to protect it and all the living things on it. Even the ones without opposable thumbs.

At the age of 26, despite the doubts of naysayers who at the time thought women shouldn't be alone in the jungle, Goodall left her home in England and ventured off to live with chimpanzees in Tanzania's Gombe Stream National Park. With her only tools a notebook and a pair of binoculars, clad in her low-top Converses or more often simply barefoot, she walked into the wild and in some ways has never left.

Primatologist, ethnologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall with a chimpanzee in her arms, circa 1995. Apic/Getty Images

During this initial research, Goodall made a world-changing discovery: Chimpanzees also make tools to hunt, thus dispelling the myth that humans were unique in this respect. Goodall's historic finding in 1960 revealed that animals not only were much more complicated than science had thought but were also more connected to us than we had imagined.

This human-wildlife connection is what propelled Goodall, over the trajectory of her life's work, from being a scientist to a conservationist to an activist, as well as founding the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) and Roots & Shoots. Her mission has been to inspire community-focused conservation and to empower new generations to be the change-makers. And she's still going.

Goodall signs a book for a young girl at an Environmental Systems Research Institute conference in 2019. National Geographic's "Jane Goodall: The Hope" picks up where "Jane" (2017) left off, following her through three generations of advocacy work as she meets with everyone from schoolchildren in Zanzibar to Prince Harry and spreads a message of hope in a time of immense environmental change. National Geographic/Michael Haertlein

Newsweek spoke to Goodall about the coronavirus pandemic; her new documentary, Jane Goodall: The Hope; and the most important message she hopes her life's work leaves behind.

This conversation has been edited and cut down for length.

In the documentary Jane Goodall: The Hope, you say that the key to protecting the forest and the wildlife is to empower the local community surrounding them. How do you think we can empower these communities that seemed to be, as you mentioned, sort of the missing link in conservation?

If you think about it, the forests have been destroyed partly by foreign companies coming in and logging them, or destroying them because of mining extractive industries. But also because human populations are growing and moving further and further into the forest—and needing space for their villages for growing their crops. And so this means that as the numbers grow, they are becoming poorer and poorer.

If you're really poor, you're going to cut the last tree down, not because you don't understand about erosion and so on but because you're desperate to feed your family. So the secret is finding alternative ways for these people to live without destroying their environment.

Goodall walking with local villagers and staff members of Tacare, a Jane Goodall Institute program. National Geographic/Michael Haertlein

And that's precisely what JGI's [Tanganyika Catchment Reforestation and Education] program is doing. There are people now, through microcredit loans, mostly women, that start little tree nurseries of silver saplings to reforest the slopes.

People now [understand] that saving the environment isn't just for wildlife, it's for their own future, because they need the forest for clean air, for clean water. And destroying the biodiversity of the forest makes the forest less healthy, and that's doom for their own children. So they become our partners.

In The Hope you also share why you made the decision to work with oil companies—"the bad guys," as you referred to them—to get a chimpanzee sanctuary built in the Republic of the Congo. Why do you think we should consider working with oil companies to not only save wildlife but to get this planet in better shape?

Well, it's certainly not with all oil companies I dream of working [with]. It was Conoco before it joined up with DuPont and Phillips, but right at the beginning it was the most environmentally friendly oil company I knew.

And I asked myself: Should I take money from them? We were desperate to find a place for these little chimpanzee orphans. And I thought, Well, I'm using the products of the oil companies when I travel; I drive, I go on planes, I stay in hotels. So if the company is actually trying to do it right, it's very hypocritical of me to say I won't take their money to give them a slightly better reputation, and at the same time help them to make that reputation even better.

There are some oil companies now who are putting more and more money into alternative energy, partly because they realize that's the future. Of course, some of them because they want to look better. So we have to be very careful who we choose.

Jane Goodall with husband
Goodall watches her photographer husband, Baron Hugo van Lawick, adjust a camera, to which a baboon is clinging, in Tanzania's Gombe Stream National Park on January 26, 1974. Hulton Archive/Getty

Can wildlife tourism offer another means of survival for these communities that resort to wildlife tracking and poaching? It was reported that poachers are killing more rhinos as coronavirus halts tourism to Africa.

No question that tourism conducted in the right way is extremely beneficial. It brings foreign exchange which pleases the central government. It provides jobs for local communities, and it's a deterrent to poachers. There's money to protect the national parks, especially where there's the loss of tourism, and so it also enables young people to get educated in those communities about not just the value of wildlife to them but also the fascination.

You said recently that the "coronavirus pandemic was caused by humanity's disregard for nature and disrespect for animals." Can you explain more about what you meant?

We must stop talking about everything as it benefits us and start realizing that the reason for this pandemic now is because we have shown so little respect for the natural world, with destroying more and more forest and animal species being pushed together. Viruses spilling over from one species to another, which normally wouldn't [happen]; animals pushed into closer contact with people [farming], for example, another opportunity for spillover of viruses. And then of course, the animal trafficking and export and the number of animals that are being sold in these so-called wet markets in Asia, but also the bushmeat in Africa.

These viruses have been predicted for many years and [were written about] in the book Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen. People haven't listened; they haven't learned from the last SARS epidemic.

A chimpanzee eats a mango in a tree. National Geographic/Bill Wallauer

What do you hope that humanity takes from this pandemic? Is there any silver lining in what we're all going through now?

The silver lining is that many people for the first time ever have breathed clean air, because with the shutdown of some of the big businesses the air has become cleaner in places like Mumbai and Beijing.

The hope is that enough people will realize what they've been missing, [that there will be] a groundswell of people determined somehow to persuade business and government to do things differently, to have a different mindset. And unfortunately, materialism and big business being what it is, I fear that business will work even more quickly to catch up on all the revenue they've lost, and it's a real conundrum because of business shutdown, commercial things being closed down. People have lost their jobs, and they're suffering.

On the other hand, it's giving a respite to nature. So we have to find a balance, we have to get back to a different way of doing things. Don't ask me about that [laughs]. It's not my sphere of knowledge, but I do know what we should be doing.

Goodall walks along the beach at Lake Tanganyika. National Geographic/Michael Haertlein

You've also said that death is your next great adventure. Why do you think that death is your next great adventure?

When we die, there's either nothing, in which case, of course, then it's not an adventure because we won't know about it. But if there's something, which I happen to believe there is, then discovering what that something is surely will be the greatest adventure we could have.

At 86, what keeps you going? How do you sustain 300 days of travel a year?

I'm a very passionate person, I will use my last breath to try and do anything I can to make things better for children, future generations and save the environment to save animal species. Because it's what I'm passionate about. And also to help children, because right now there's so much doom and gloom that it's really bad for children.

So that's why I'm doing a lot of reading books for children, telling stories that can go out on the internet.

Goodall and her grandson Merlin van Lawick with students and volunteers of Roots & Shoots, a Jane Goodall Institute program. National Geographic/Michael Haertlein

If there's one message your life's work leaves behind, what do you want it to be?

I think the most important thing is to remember that each one of us makes an impact on the planet every single day. And I'd like the audience to whom I'm speaking now to make ethical choices in what they buy. Where did it come from? How is it made? Did it harm the environment? Was it cruel to animals? Is it cheap because of child slave labor?

We can make ethical choices about how we live each day. But in order for that to really work, we have to alleviate poverty. Because if you're really poor, then you have to do what you have to do to live. But we can make ethical choices that will make some impact on our unsustainable lifestyle. Do I really need two houses? Do I really need this new dress? Won't the old one do?

I think that you as an individual matter. [You] have a role to play and can make a difference.

Jane Goodall: The Hope, a two-hour documentary, premieres April 22 at 9 p.m. EDT/8 p.m. CDT on National Geographic and Nat Geo WILD.