“Chimpanzee,” the fascinating Disneynature documentary that chronicles not only the rich lives of a tribe of African chimps but also captures the astounding tale of Oscar, an infant chimp who suddenly finds himself orphaned in the wild, bows on home video Tuesday, and Dr. Jane Goodall, who has studied primates for nearly five decades, admits even she has never seen the sort of surprise – and very real – twist the movie depicts.
The world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees offers her thoughts on the eye-opening film exclusively to PopcornBiz.
What do you think is the importance of the film 'Chimpanzee'? What's the key thing people should take away from it?
I think what people will take away is an increased appreciation for chimpanzees and who they are, for their personalities and for ways in which their behavior is so like our own. You can't see the film, really, and not get a very good sense of understanding that 'Yes, indeed – they differ from us genetically by only just over one percent,' and you can see it in their behavior.
Even after all your years of study, were their surprises in this film?
I've never seen an infant adopted by an alpha male, a 12-year-old adolescent, unrelated male. There has been one other case of an alpha male – I think it was on the Ivory Coast – adopting an infant. It's not terribly unique, but it was a wonderful sequence to see.
Have you seen other kinds of evidence of unexpected altruism in chimpanzees before?
Oh, yes. I've seen them and read about them. They can be incredibly altruistic, and actually, quite a lot of animals are. Some biologists tried to define it in a such a way that it can only apply to humans. But there's a lot of caring and concern for individuals of your species and even about other species, too, in the animal world.
By appealing to a young audience, can early exposure to stories like this help inspire children to be conservation minded as they mature?
Absolutely. I mean, my own work is a perfect example: a number of children around the world, hundreds, literally hundreds and hundreds read one of my books when they were 12 or something and have told me that that's what led them on the path that they've taken in life. I mean, hundreds.
I'm sure that's meaningful to you to hear that.
Yes, and of course I mentioned books, but the [National] Geographic films have the same things, people who watched my life among the wild chimpanzees when they were young have sort of laid out a different path for their own future.
Can you talk about the most important challenges facing the chimpanzees in today's world? What do we need to pay close attention to?
Well, the worst threat to the chimpanzees, the wild chimpanzees is the loss of the forest in some areas and what they call 'the bush meat trade' in others. The bush meat trade is the commercial hunting of all wild animals for food. Not just chimpanzees, but any manner of animals, all wild animals. This is completely messing up the entire eco-system. Sometimes it's bush meat and forest destruction together.
Are we getting closer to alleviating these problems or have these issues remained the same over the years?
Well, they've gotten worse, but my institute, The Jane Goodall Institute, we've now got a very strong, new conservation trust in the central part of the chimpanzees range. It's a mixture of working with government, saving forests with things like carbon trading and especially education for young people. The Jane Goodall Institute's Youth Program, Roots & Shoots, is now in most of the African range countries of the chimpanzees.
What can the institute do thanks to Disneynature and the “See Chimpanzees, Save Chimpanzees” initiative that you've worked out? What kinds of good work can you accomplish through that?
Because they're giving us twenty cents of every ticket the first week of showing…When it was shown in the U.S., by the way, we got two weeks of that, but anyway, this mounts up to a nice sum which we're using to help conserve the forests in the countries where we're working, and to care for our orphaned chimpanzees in the Congo, which has the largest chimpanzee sanctuary in Africa. It's got over 150 chimps whose mothers have mostly been killed in the bush meat trade. Pretty awful.
What are some of the first steps people can take into the conservation world so that they can get active and involved?
Well, people want to get active and involved in different ways, but the first, obviously, is to learn more about it. Our janegoodall.org website helps people with all they could possibly want to know about chimpanzee behavior and how to help protect them, so you can learn to help us by becoming a chimp guardian for one of our orphaned chimps. There are all kinds of things that kids get involved with, recycling cell phones and other products, which have this Coltan in them. Coltan is illegally mined in the Congo and it's leading to the death of thousands of animals and forest destruction as well. And then the youth can use our Global Youth Program, which is in 131 countries because then you get the young people coming together and talking about the problems, learning about the problems and taking action. They're raising money. They're recycling cell phones. They're encouraging their parents to buy wood products that come with a forest stewardship logo. They're filled with imagination.
After all of your years of study, what keeps you fascinated by chimpanzees and keeps you delighted in continuing your work with them?
It's because just about every time I go to Gombe [Stream National Park in Tanzania], even if I don't see the chimpanzees I learn about them from the field staff that's out there constantly, and there are always new things. It's unbelievable. It's been years now, and yet we're still seeing completely new behaviors at Gombe, so it just keeps you fascinated and wondering if we're ever learn it all – and the answer is probably not.