Why Filipinos Should Read: ‘Jane Goodall: 50 Years at Gombe’ by Jane Goodall

by Bryan Meniado

I often get asked why Bibi Mangki #thereadingmonkey is a monkey. While it may seem trivial, this is an important question. Bibi Mangki being a monkey is neither an accident nor a product of a whim. I did not get the idea out of nowhere like “Oh, I want to make a character who likes to read and random, random, it’s going to be a monkey!” In fact, the concept of “Mangki” predates Bibi Mangki by almost two decades. 

While my penchant for reading and collecting books is a relatively recent development, my fondness for animals has always been with me since I was little. It began when my aunt gifted me her monkey bag. I can no longer remember the exact moment or year when I received it (nor can my aunt), but it’s been with me for the longest time, maybe even before I walked on my feet. When I received it, it had already lost its tag so I never found out its real name or manufacturer. Growing up, I just called it “Mangki,” which turned into Mami Mangki because eventually, more monkey plushies joined in and I had to draw a family tree.

Mami Mangki

The point here is that Mami Mangki has been one of my earliest and significant animal figures in my life. Not only is she the inspiration for Bibi Mangki, she has also taught me to care for and appreciate not just stuffed animals but, more importantly, real animals. And in this month’s WFSR, we are going to talk about one of the many: chimpanzees. July 14 is World Chimpanzee Day, which is in commemoration of Jane Goodall’s first-time arrival at the Gombe National Park in Tanzania in 1960. There, Jane started her 60-year (and still counting) study of the social and family interactions of wild chimpanzees. She witnessed, described, and wrote about human-like behaviors and practices amongst chimpanzees that had never been seen or recorded before. As an animal and primate lover myself, Jane Goodall, English primatologist, activist, and the foremost expert on chimpanzees, is one of the people I look up to.

Today, Jane is 87 years old but she has yet to retire, saying she has no plans of doing so because there remains a lot of things to be done. While she no longer frequents Gombe, she is still active in her advocacy in environment, conservation, and animal welfare issues. She has also founded different organizations to further her causes like the Jane Goodall Institute and the Roots & Shoots program among others. In 2002, she was designated as UN Messenger of Peace and has since been spreading the message of peace, compassion, and hope all over the world. 

Jane Goodall: 50 Years at Gombe, published in 2010, by Jane Goodall with the Jane Goodall Institute is a tribute to the fiive decades of wildlife research, education, and conservation. In it, she shares her life experiences from her formative years, and how she developed her love for animals, to being a curious young woman who wanted to do a study in Africa and to the activist that she is now. Below I share some priceless stories from the book. Enjoy!

Support systems empowering dreams

Jane is said to have exhibited her fondness for animals throughout her childhood, and similar to my experience with Mami Mangki, she had also received a stuffed chimpanzee named Jubilee as a gift from her father, which she carried around and loved for many years. 

According to the book, Jane’s parents, particularly her mother Vanne, had since been 100% supportive of her interests and goals. In fact, when the then 26-year-old Jane expressed her interest to do a study of chimpanzees at Gombe, Vanne was the one who worked hard to find research grants. She was the hands-on mother who urged National Geographic to support the research at the time nobody wanted to shell out for the young and inexperienced Jane. Field research back then was dominated by men making Jane an outlier and leaving her without pledges. But because of Vanne’s persistence, they managed to garner enough support, and she even came along with her daughter to Gombe.

Close to sixty years later, Jane is now the leading primatologist specializing in chimpanzees and an ardent activist for the environment who shares the message of compassion, peace, and hope. While she is in herself smart and diligent, she wouldn’t have achieved this feat without the initial guidance and support of her parents. Her parents enabled Jane to achieve what she has achieved. They believed in the capacity of their child to do great things. 

For me, this should be an aspiration for parents who are able. Parents should be willing to guide their children, support their interests, and encourage them to explore things to help them create and achieve their goals in life, no matter how silly they may sound at first. Sometimes, stories of parents telling children that their dreams are impractical and unrealistic would circle around, carrying lines like “you can’t do that, you’ll fail”, or “wala kang mararating d’yan, ito na lang gawin mo.” I understand the many factors that come into play (privilege, wealth, etc.) but this reality is still sad. For example, had Vanne told her daughter such things, Jane couldn’t have gone on to do what she has done. Having a support system, whether from a parent, a guardian, or a friend, matters greatly and can make or break someone’s success.

The animal most like us humans: chimpanzees

Jane’s description of chimpanzees is that they are not just any animal but the one most like us humans. They are our closest relatives, sharing about 98% of human DNA, which I think is an amazing point of comparison. For me, this should humble us. It should make us realize that, while we are special in our own way, we are not the only special beings in this world because animals and all living things have their own beauty and value. Furthermore, humans are a part of nature, of the ecosystem, and should not be viewed as an outsider looking in. True that we may have evolved into the intelligent being that we are now, but that does not mean we have dominion over or the right to exploit nature.

Along that line, chimpanzees, monkeys, and many animals are sentient beings too. As Jane discovered at Gombe, chimpanzees, like humans, have the capacity to feel happiness, loneliness, and grief. They have a sense of family and community, and they too know how to use tools to facilitate everyday tasks or to solve problems. (Some of these characteristics extend to many other living things.)

This is why I would feel bad when people would use animals as insults. “Baboy ka, unggoy ka, buwaya ka” and many others are commonly used to offend another person, as if being an animal was something abhorrent. Yes, we may have the intelligence capable of complex ideation, communication, and culture compared to the rest of the animal kingdom, but remember, humans are also animals. We are mammals. And that fact should not be taken as an insult to humanity, but instead we as a species should use it to better contribute to this interconnected world. 

Growing with the right knowledge

To grow as better people and species, we have to educate ourselves about our fellow earthlings and the environment. We can’t pride ourselves as the most intelligent species on Earth without shouldering any responsibility. 

But over the past millennia, we have been using our intellect in the worst ways, and have become the most destructive force in nature. We have been exploiting, damaging, and violating the environment. We have been cutting down entire forests, polluting the oceans, releasing toxic emissions to the atmosphere, and killing off wildlife (hello, pandemic?). We have been disrupting complex ecosystems at the expense of other species and our home. And for me, that is, to say the least, an embarrassment to humanity. We should be ashamed as a species. Earth deserves an apology from us; Earth deserves so much better.

But for Jane, not all hope is lost. She says we can still do something to reverse that trend by using our intellect to solve the problems we have caused. The first step is to equip ourselves with the right information and use that to improve and change our old ways. We have to remember and understand that we are just one of the tenants in this world, and we owe our fellow earthlings solid solutions and actions for the burdens we have caused. 

We can achieve that with knowledge and understanding, just like what Jane did. She went to Gombe to study the chimpanzees which helped her realize the real value of wildlife and biodiversity. Now, as an activist, she spreads word about what she has learned at Gombe through her books and speaking engagements, both in the grassroots and in the highest intergovernmental bodies like the United Nations. Strengthening research, education, and conservation by allocating sufficient funding to our scientists and educators is crucial. We should support these researches so we can come up with concrete solutions to our social, environmental, and global problems. The knowledge produced by these efforts should serve as our guiding principle toward implementing and upholding laws for the benefit of all people, including wildlife and the environment. 

Activating communities towards shared goals

Another valuable lesson from Jane is the importance of engaging people and communities in order to achieve the right and most beneficial goals. Yes, Jane Goodall is Jane Goodall but she couldn’t and can’t do everything by herself. This is why community participation, with the right education and necessary tools, is vital to achieve sustainability.  

One of the many things Jane did was that she founded Roots & Shoots and TACARE. These organizations use a community-centered approach, with the goal of bringing together youth to work on environmental, conservation, and humanitarian issues. They also put local communities at the heart of conservation by improving people’s lives, animals, and the environment so that what Jane has started at Gombe can live on to the next generations. 

Just like the biodiverse Congo River Basin where Gombe is located, the Philippines is one of the mega-biodiverse regions in the world. We have a lot of endemic flora and fauna species however, sadly, many of them are already endangered. It is one of my greatest hopes that we could also do more to protect the environment and empower our communities, especially in the countryside. More opportunities in education and conservation and concrete policies and programs must be provided for them so they can appreciate and maximize the true value of nature and resources, at the same time help them live quality lives without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

A hopeful generation

As I mentioned earlier, Jane, despite her advanced age, remains to be very active in her advocacy by spreading the message of hope. She believes that the greatest danger to our planet is when we lose hope because that is when we stop trying. No matter how gloomy the horizon is, our belief in our capacities to bounce back should never waver. 

In the book, she highlights the role of the youth in making the world a better place not just for humans but also for animals. She said we should move forward with faith in ourselves, in our intelligence, and in our indomitable spirit. We should develop respect for all living things and to try to replace violence and intolerance with understanding, compassion, and love. 

Her advice for the younger generation is that if we want something, we should work hard, take advantage of opportunities, and never give up. I hear all these, even with all the hindrances and injustice many of us face in the world.  We should indeed continue to fight the good fight. With hope and tenacity, we will find ways to make a healing difference. Let us keep saving and protecting the animals of this planet, chimpanzees and even your own Mami Mangki included. ☁️

“Jane walks on stage to the applause of 52,000 people at the Live Earth concert at Giants Stadium in New Jersey.” Photo credit: JGI/Christin Jones
Why Filipinos Should Read appears every last Friday of the month. Read more here.

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