If chimps are so much like us, why are they endangered while humans dominate the globe?
Well, in some ways we’re not successful at all. We’re destroying our home. That’s not a bit successful. Chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans have been living for hundreds of thousands of years in their forest, living fantastic lives, never overpopulating, never destroying the forest. I would say that they have been in a way more successful than us as far as being in harmony with the environment.
Large humanitarian initiatives in Africa, like those spearheaded by Bill Gates and Bill Clinton, understandably focus on the needs of people. Does that human focus conflict with the needs of the animals?
Sometimes. But even if you forget the animals, what these people sometimes totally ignore is the environment. If you cut down all the trees at Gombe, yes, the chimps will go. But you’ll also get terrible soil erosion, desertification, and flooding. People will suffer terribly. So in addition to addressing the physical needs of people—like water, sanitation, education—you also must address their impact on the environment and our spiritual need to be connected with nature. That’s really a psychological need that we have. I also have problems with the way a lot of aid is delivered.
What is it like to be such a public scientist? When you attend primatology meetings these days, how are you treated?
I’m the elder female. I’m mobbed, really. My role now is to talk about conservation and to try to inspire some of the young field biologists who are desperate because their study animals are disappearing. So I try to encourage them with stories like those about TACARE and how to involve local people so their study animals survive and they can continue their research. We each have to do our bit and realize that when you add up those bits, you have massive change.