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At 82, Jane Goodall embraces digital technology to save the planet

Best known for rolling with chimpanzees in the African wild and revealing the apes’ true nature as never before, Jane Goodall is now embracing modern technology in her mission to save the planet.

And at 82, the British primatologist said she has more energy than ever, particularly due to her work with young people around the world.

“I do have hope for the future, even though I think I have seen as much as anybody of the harm that we are inflicting on this planet,” Goodall said at the recent International Union for Conservation of Nature’s World Conservation Congress in Honolulu.

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“We are coming up with new technology all the time that will enable us to get in greater harmony with nature.”

Goodall rose to fame for her pioneering, up-close study of the behaviour of chimpanzees in the 1960s.

She was the first researcher to give names – rather than numbers – to the apes, and was the first to observe them using tools, a capacity that was until then thought to belong only to humans.

Now, her Jane Goodall Institute is using satellite imagery, digital mapping and Nasa technology to encourage large-scale conservation projects in the forests of Africa.

The initiative, led by her co-worker Lilian Pintea, has allowed people living in Gombe National Park in Tanzania to see high-resolution digital maps of their forests from above for the first time.

Seeing how these landscapes have changed since the 1970s, with trees dwindling and important chimp habitat lost, has encouraged them to protect their forests, better manage their own resources and replant trees, he said.

“The reason why this change happened was because we merged and integrated this perspective from above with the local understanding about the nature of the ecology in the right context at the community level,” Pintea says.

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Goodall herself says she is not involved with technical details – that is all handled by Pintea, an expert in mapping tools who previously worked at the World Bank.

But she told the congress she is in awe of the power of US space agency technology to make connections with the most primitive cultures. “I find this a very fascinating juxtaposition of ideas,” she said.

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Goodall says she travels 300 days of the year, and is inspired by meeting young people, particularly through a programme she began in 1991 with a dozen students in Tanzania.

Called Roots and Shoots, the programme encourages kids to come up with ideas to help people, animals and the environment, and is now a major movement in nearly 100 countries.

“As I travel around the world,” she told the audience in Honolulu, “I meet more and more young people who seem to have a new determination that they are going to take over and they are going to make change.”

She also touted the power of social media to connect people around environmental causes.

“Social media used in the right way can bring together people around the world in unprecedented numbers,” she said.

Goodall spoke at several sessions during the IUCN World Conservation Congress last weekend, opening at least one of them by stepping to the microphone and mimicking the greeting call of a wild chimpanzee. The packed room cheered and applauded in response, and a few women wiped away tears.

She is also featured in a new movie about the perils of climate change, called Time to Choose, written and directed by Academy Award winner Charles Ferguson.

“You can see how far Jane has come out of her comfort zone,” said the film’s executive director Jeff Horowitz, remarking on Goodall’s move from the wilderness to the forefront of modern technology.

Goodall “is generally known to strike up a conversation with everyone around her”, he adds.