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  • Writer's pictureCatriona Ross

‘This was the proudest moment I had known’: Jane Goodall and chimpanzees in Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania

Since dawn I had climbed up and down the steep mountain slopes and pushed my way through the dense valley forests. Again and again I had stopped to listen, or to gaze through binoculars at the surrounding countryside. Yet I had neither heard nor seen a single chimpanzee and now it was already five o’clock. In two hours darkness would fall over the rugged terrain of the Gombe Stream Reserve. I settled down at my favourite vantage point, the Peak, hoping that at least I might see a chimpanzee make his nest for the night before I had to stop work for the day.

I was watching a troop of monkeys in the forested valley below when suddenly I heard the screaming of a young chimpanzee. Quickly I scanned the trees with my binoculars, but the sound had died away before I could locate the exact place, and it took several minutes of searching before I saw four chimpanzees. The slight squabble was over and they were all feeding peacefully on some yellow plum-like fruits.

The distance between us was too great for me to make detailed observations, and I decided to try to get closer. Carefully I surveyed the trees close to the group: if I could manage to get to that large fig without frightening the chimpanzees, I thought, I would get an excellent view. It took me about ten minutes to make the journey. As I moved cautiously around the thick gnarled trunk of the fig I realised that the chimpanzees had gone; the branches of the fruit trees were empty. The same old feeling of depression clawed at me. Once again the chimpanzees had seen me and silently fled. Then all at once my heart missed several beats.

Less than twenty yards away from me two male chimpanzees were sitting on the ground staring at me intently. Scarcely breathing, I waited for the sudden panic-stricken flight which normally followed a surprise encounter between myself and the chimpanzees at close quarters. But nothing of the sort happened. The two large chimps simply continued to gaze at me. Very slowly I sat down and, after a few more moments, the two calmly began to groom one another.

As I watched, still scarcely believing it was true, I saw two more chimpanzee heads peering at me over the grass from the other side of a small forest glade; a female and a youngster. They bobbed down as I turned my head towards them, but soon reappeared, one after the other, in the lower branches of a tree about forty yards away. There they sat, almost motionless, watching me.

For over half a year I had been trying to overcome the chimpanzees’ inherent fear of me, the fear which made them vanish into the undergrowth whenever I approached. At first, indeed, they had fled even when I was as far away as five hundred yards, and on the other side of a ravine. Now two males were sitting so close that I could almost hear them breathing.

Without the slightest doubt, this was the proudest moment I had known. I had been accepted by the two magnificent creatures grooming each other in front of me. I knew them both: David Greybeard, who had always been the least afraid of me, was one, and the other was Goliath, not the giant his name implies but of superb physique and the highest ranking of all the males. Their coats gleamed vivid black in the softening light of the evening.

For more than ten minutes, David Greybeard and Goliath sat grooming each other and then, just before the sun vanished over the horizon behind me, David got up and stood staring at me. And it so happened that my elongated evening shadow fell across him. The moment is etched deep into my memory: the excitement of the first close contact with a wild chimpanzee and the freakish chance that cast my shadow over David even as he seemed to gaze into my eyes. Later it acquired an almost allegorical significance for, of all living creatures today, only man, with his superior brain, his superior intellect, overshadows the chimpanzee. Only man casts his shadow of doom over the freedom of the chimpanzee in the forests with his guns and his spreading settlement and cultivation. At that moment, however, I did not think of this. I only marvelled in David and Goliath themselves.

The depression and despair which had so often visited me during the preceding months were as nothing compared to the exultation that I felt when the group had finally moved away and I was hastening down the darkening mountainside to my tent on the shores of Lake Tanganyika.


This is an excerpt from In the Shadow of Man by Jane Goodall (1971). Reproduced with permission of the Licensor through PLSclear. Watch the author read Chapter 1: Beginnings, which includes this story:


Dr Jane Goodall, DBE, founder of the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) and UN Messenger of Peace, is a world-renowned ethologist and activist inspiring greater understanding and action on behalf of the natural world. Dr Goodall is known for groundbreaking studies of wild chimpanzees in Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania, which forever changed our understanding of our relationship to the rest of the animal kingdom. This transformative research continues today as the longest-running wild chimpanzee study in the world. The Jane Goodall Institute advances community-led conservation, animal welfare, science and youth empowerment through its Roots & Shoots programme.

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