Reflections From Gombe - Elizabeth Lonsdorf

“What Gombe means to me”

by Elizabeth Lonsdorf

Like other young girls, I grew up fascinated by animals and watching nature shows on TV.  Jane Goodall’s stories in the pages of National Geographic magazine and the subsequent documentaries had me transfixed by this brave young woman, with no formal training, who was living in the wilds of Africa to study chimpanzees. I went off to college at Duke University fully intending to be a lawyer (as arguing was something for which I had a particular talent),  but a pre-freshman program of hiking and camping in the Blue Ridge Mountains immediately changed  those goals – I knew I wanted my work to have something to do with the outdoors. I was lucky enough at Duke to have supportive professors who encouraged my interests in animals and their behavior, and throughout my undergraduate career I conducted research studies at the Duke University Primate Center. 

During my senior year, two profound events shaped my future. First, my professors convinced me that people could actually make a living watching animals -- I just had to obtain a graduate degree. Secondly, Jane Goodall came to speak at an event put on by the primate center. As is her usual, she utterly transfixed the audience with her stories about the Gombe chimpanzees, their behavior and the conservation plight of apes around the world. There were actual tears in my eyes as the lecture concluded and I quickly lined up with the other guests for a chance to have her sign a recent National Geographic feature article and meet her in person. My mother was with me at this event, and she stood in the long line with me. To her great shock, when it came my turn to meet Jane, I was rendered speechless (not a state my mother had ever seen me in) and was only able to mumble a few key statements like ‘wonderful, amazing, thank you’. After Jane’s visit, I redoubled my efforts to gain more research experience so that I could submit a competitive graduate school application.

To my great surprise, I was offered an interview at the University of Minnesota with Dr. Anne Pusey, who was Director of the Jane Goodall Institute’s Center for Primate Studies at the university. Jane had given Anne (a former student) permission to organize, digitize and serve as a steward of all of the data collected over the now decades of work on the Gombe chimpanzees, and Anne was looking for students to work on this incredible resource. I was offered other graduate school positions, but the chance to work on the Gombe data was a dream come true, and so I moved to the great white north to begin my PhD program. Jane came to visit in my first year of graduate school, and I had the opportunity to speak to her about my research interests (and this time, I was actually able to speak). She was brilliant and encouraging and I was in utter disbelief that I was actually discussing these things with her and that I was about to go out to Gombe to begin collecting data.

Shortly thereafter, I made my first trip to Gombe. Gombe can only be described by words like ‘magical, idyllic, a paradise’. With a thick, beautiful, green forest covering a steep slope up to rift escarpment and all the way down to a narrow pebble beach fronting the shores of the carribean-teal Lake Tanganyika. My first day in the forest, with Dr. Shadrack Kamenya, I came upon Gombe’s second celebrity – the chimpanzee Fifi. I got a lump in my throat as I watched this chimpanzee, who I had seen so many times on TV, romp, play and rest with her family. She boosted little Flirt up with her feet in her typical airplane pose and tickled her, then turned and looked straight into my eyes and held my gaze for almost 10 seconds….I was hooked. Over the next 4 years, I watched mother chimpanzees and their families as I studied infant development of tool use skills. I had to opportunity to be with Jane at Gombe during one of my trips, and we took a long walk together down to the southern part of the park. As I walked with her, she pointed out certain places, told me stories, commented on the other wildlife and I furiously tried to imprint those moments in my memory. With girlish delight, she pointed out and picked up a forest snail, saying ‘Isn’t it beautiful?’ and planting a kiss on it. It was a walk I will never forget.

So, what has Gombe and Jane meant to me? There is no doubt that Jane, Anne, Gombe and the chimpanzees have made me who I am today. I am now the Director of the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes at Lincoln Park Zoo, and continue to work to study, understand and conserve great apes. I still work closely with the Jane Goodall Institute and the staff and other researchers centered at the Gombe Stream Research Centre. I love my work, both personally and professionally and will be forever grateful to Jane and her colleagues who initiated and, to this day, continue the long and great research tradition of the Gombe chimpanzees.

 Photo: Courtesy Science Museum of Minnesota

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