January 27, 2015
After days of travel and very little sleep, I find myself jet lagged yet safely arrived in Gombe. Just north of Kigoma, along the shores of Lake Tanganyika, this national park is one of the smallest in Tanzania– a fact that might surprise a traveler arriving by boat. From a small wooden vessel, rounding a rocky outcrop that juts into the water, an image of giant green slopes appears like a mirage atop a sea of blue. A white pebble beach divides the two like a final barrier between elevations before evergreen forest rises to a ridgeline that at its highest point reaches approximately 1500 meters. From the top of the slopes, like spindly veins from out a central channel, flow smaller ridges that return gradually to the lake. Between the smaller ridges are basin-like valleys bursting with flora. The rains dictate Gombe’s colors, and as the wet season begins, a wave of vivid green climbs higher and spreads from the basins until all is covered in dense forest, only to recede again when it is dry. In all seasons, the park is beautiful and breathing with life, impossible to imagine in its true form yet equally as impossible to forget.
Many have written at great lengths about Gombe, the most notable of all admirers being Jane Goodall. In the early 1960’s, after identifying comparative behavioral data from living great apes as a missing piece in the human evolutionary puzzle, Louis Leakey sent Jane, who had not yet received doctoral training, to begin research on a community of wild chimpanzees. A few years later, he arranged studies for two others: Dian Fossey was sent to Rwanda to observe Gorillas, and Birute Galdikas to Borneo for orangutans. Jane began recording data on the chimps in the form of long-hand notes. As a former secretary, her narrations were expedited by printer’s shorthand, and before long reports emerged from her field site that would challenge the world’s concept of the term “human”. Jane had discovered that not only were the chimpanzees utilizing tools to fish for termites, but they were modifying them, carefully selecting twigs and stripping them of leaves to create a proper probe. Until this point, tool use was considered a uniquely human trait, an ability that required the deft hand and brilliant mind of our species alone. The simple observation of a formerly unseen behavior rocked our understanding of the human role in nature, eliminating a crucial identifying feature from a list exclusive to the genus Homo. And the culling was far from over.
Over the course of her career, Jane discovered many shared behaviors between humans and chimpanzees that ranged from hunting to the existence of close social bonds, or “friendships”. Data collection was standardized via rigorous sampling procedures, and an enduring research presence has allowed us to collect, enter and digitize over 50 years of data spanning over three generations of chimpanzees. The families of individuals that Jane first observed in 1960 carry on today, grooming, hunting and using tools as a new cohort of researchers follow behind, pen and paper in hand. Jane loved the chimpanzees she followed and became a steward of nature, advocating a harmonious, sustainable existence with the environment. In her writing and public talks, Jane details the majesty of Gombe, describing in animate detail the life, death, beauty and rebirth that occurs within the natural life cycle of the centuries-old forest. The heavy smell of earth, the brilliant colors of intertwined plants, and the movement of scales, fur and feathers through this ever-evolving landscape evoke a sense of raw belonging unmatched by any place on earth, an experience so rooted in the senses that it can never be captured by words. I imagine that this is the mother nature described by so many, and the divinity that some find in these transcendent moments are for me, a visceral, earthly reality to be lived in day in and day out.