Jane Goodall (Festival della Scienza/Flickr)

A Walk in the Deep Forest with Jane Goodall

David Quammen recalls an expedition into the jungle with the renowned chimpanzee expert

ON THE EVENING OF THE ARRIVAL OF Jane Goodall, footsore and weary after a long day’s slog, and accompanied by Fay and a handful of others (including photographer Nick Nichols and me), Morgan and Sanz were there at the Goualougo field camp to greet her. Night had fallen before the hiking was done, and we found our way down the last thigh-deep channel by headlamp. Stumbling up onto solid ground, we pitched our tents, washed, and reconvened at the campfire for beans and rice.

May 9, 2023: Join Jane Goodall and several other writers and naturalists
for our virtual gala celebrating the nonhuman world.

It had been 10 years since she had walked so far, Jane said. Her blistered soles reflected that fact. Still, at age 68, her signature ponytail now going gray, she had a reservoir of strength to spare—spiritual strength, if not muscular. She seemed invigorated by the sheer joy of being back in a forest full of chimpanzees.

Next morning Jane ventured out onto the Goualougo trails, hoping for a view of the animals Morgan and Sanz had been studying. But it wasn’t like the solitary, early days at Gombe. Here, now, she moved at the center of a crowd: a tracker, Morgan, Sanz, Fay, Nick with his unobtrusive little Leica—and that was just the half of it. With each step Jane took, a crew from National Geographic Television shadowed her, hungry to record every word and glance. The forest itself became a TV stage. But she was patient and professional, hitting her mark in every scene, repeating this or that comment when another take was called for, using the television attention as she used all such burdens and opportunities of fame—to get her message out. That message, grossly compressed and presumptuously summarized by me, was: Every individual counts, both among nonhuman animals and among humans, so if you renounce callous anthropocentrism and cruelty, your personal actions will make Earth a better place.

After five days in the forest, it began to seem questionable whether Jane herself, the guest of honor, would have any significant encounter with any chimpanzees whatsoever. One problem was her damaged feet. Although the blisters didn’t stop her from walking, they did inconvenience her. Having observed a certain coping measure of mine, she expressed interest, and one morning she let me duct-tape her feet. I covered her blisters and hot spots with little bits of clean paper, and then the paper with my preferred brand of pliable green duct tape, all to fit beneath her sandals—the same method I’d used throughout the Megatransect. It helped. She borrowed my tape for future mornings, did her own taping, and carried on gamely.

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Another problem was the sheer collective bustle of such a large group. You don’t parade through the woods in a party of 10 if you want to see animals, not even if the animals in question are naive, or habituated, or flat-out deaf. You’ve got a sound person dangling a boom mike. You’ve got a camera operator walking backward through the brush. You’ve got a director who keeps saying, David, please step out of the shot. I stepped out, and eventually abandoned the circus altogether, spending a few days exploring other trails with Dave Morgan.

Finally, after most of a week, Jane did get a chance to enjoy what she had come for—three hours in the presence of a relaxed group of chimps as they fed, rested, and otherwise occupied themselves in a Synsepalum tree. It wasn’t a dramatic encounter. The chimps went about their business, showing no excited curiosity or reciprocal fascination. But it was satisfying to Jane, who saw not just a gaggle of primates but individual creatures, particularized under the names by which Morgan and Sanz had come to know them: the female Maya, her infant daughter, Malia, the female O’Keefe, and a half dozen more.

Later that afternoon, Jane and I sat in the forest discussing the problems facing Gombe, her own years of experience there, and the prospects of an alternate future for the Goualougo. At one point I asked about the difference between concern for individual animals and concern for endangered populations. To her, it’s a sterile distinction. “When I’m thinking about some forest being logged, and the bush meat trade,” she said, “it isn’t just a population of chimps that’s going. It’s individuals.” Destroy individuals of such a species, and you eradicate also “all their wisdom, all their cultures that have been passed down from one generation to the next.” After a moment, she added, “I can’t separate the loss of a population from the harm of individuals.” At Gombe she had known four generations intimately. To the chimps of the Goualougo, she was a stranger. “It does take me back to my childhood dreams,” Jane said. “You know, I’m really happy that I got here—in spite of the blisters!” Next morning, on nearly healed feet, she started walking back toward the world.


Excerpted from The Heartbeat of the Wild by David Quammen, available from National Geographic Books. Copyright © 2023 David Quammen.

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