Goodall and Nishida Win Leakey Prize
by Erica Gies
It was a dark and stormy night, but some of the world’s top primatologists and their supporters were warmly ensconced in the brand-new California Academy of Sciences Museum in San Francisco, with its domed rainforest and sinuous walkways through a tidal ecosystem and a coral reef. The scientists had come in from the bush and traveled halfway around the world to honor two pioneers in their field: Dr. Jane Goodall and Dr. Toshisada Nishida.
On Saturday, November 1, Goodall and Nishida were awarded the Leakey Prize, which recognizes accomplishments in human evolutionary science. The $25,000 prize has been awarded just seven times since it was created in 1990, and has never before been given to primatologists. The award honors scientists who transcend the boundaries of their disciplines and link different branches of science.
Goodall began studying chimpanzees in Gombe National Park in Tanzania in 1960 under the mentorship of anthropologist and paleontologist Louis Leakey, the namesake of the foundation awarding the prize. Nishida began his study of the same species in 1965 in the Mahale Mountains of Tanzania. Because the animals have such long lifespans — 50 years or more — these ongoing long-range studies are key to understanding their lifecycles.
Both scientists’ observations have irrevocably altered modern human attitudes toward other animals. Before their work, people thought many behaviors defined humans, such as tool making and use. In fact, other primates share this behavior, as do other species, such as birds. Their work has reminded us that we are animals who have a lot in common with other creatures.
Goodall observed chimpanzees making and using tools, hunting and killing prey, waging war, forming complex social relationships, and having diverse personalities. Nishida discovered information about chimpanzee diet, technology, social organization, communication, and the medicinal use of plants. This latter observation helped to create a new field of investigation, zoopharmacognosy.
“During four decades of research, our conceptions of chimpanzees has completely changed,” said Dr. Nishida, citing other behaviors such as food sharing, male politics, ostracism, infanticide, cannibalism, territoriality, cooperation, long-lasting mother-offspring relationships, adoption of orphans, emotion, and sex differences in many types of behavior.
“The finding of humanlike behavior in chimpanzees have proved a closer link between humans and other creatures,” said Nishida. “Humans should not monopolize the resources of the Planet Earth, but share them with all the creatures with whom we share origins.”
Additionally both scientists made methodological advances that have been used in studies for a broad range of species.
In recent years, both Goodall and Nishida have left field work to educate the broader world. “I left the forests, I left Gombe, because I felt I had to, because of the threats facing chimpanzees,” said Goodall at a symposium earlier in the day. She cited deforestation and fragmentation of habitat, the bushmeat trade, diseases such as Ebola, and the growing human population.
Nishida has mentored and inspired an entire generation of primate field researchers at Kyoto University in his native Japan. He also initiated the 10-year effort to make Mahale a national park in Tanzania, which was finally created in 1985.
“Long-term research has played a very important role in terms of conservation,” said Nishida. “Researchers are always monitoring chimpanzees, and so notice the first signs of any emergencies, such as poaching, epidemics, environmental destruction.”
In response to such threats, Goodall realized that human needs must be met in sustainable ways if ape habitat is to survive. In 1977 she founded the Jane Goodall Institute for Wildlife Research, Education, and Conservation. The organization is a leader in the now widely accepted practice of community-centered conservation and development.
“[Scientists know] the importance of community conservation and because it is indispensible to continue their research,” said Nishida.
One Goodall Institute program, Take Care, has been implemented in the 32 villages around Gombe. They’ve started tree nurseries for reforestation, taught best practices for farming degraded land, given women information on HIV/AIDS and family planning, offered microloans to women to start environmentally sustainable development projects, and started scholarships for girls. “All around the world, as women’s education rises, so family size drops,” said Goodall. The institute’s Roots & Shoots program educates young people about conservation and their natural heritage in more than 100 countries.
“Roots & Shoots so often inspires passion in young people, and the empowerment that we can change our lives, that we are responsible for what is going on around us,” Goodall said.
Goodall also sees promise in careful eco-tourism and carbon credits for avoided deforestation.