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 Chimpanzee Reserve. I settled down at my favorite 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 plumlike fruits.
The distance between us was too great for me to make detailed observations, so I decided to try to get closer. 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 realized that the chimpanzees had gone; the branches of the fruit tree 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 that 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 toward 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 that made them vanish into the undergrowth whenever I approached. At first 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 any doubt whatsoever, 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 Graybeard, 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 Graybeard 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 settlements and cultivation. At that moment, however, I did not think of this. I only marveled in David and Goliath themselves.
The depression and despair that had so often visited me during the preceding months were as nothing compared to the exultation 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.
It had all begun three years before when I had met Dr. L. S. B. Leakey, the well-known anthropologist and paleontologist, in Nairobi. Or perhaps it had begun in my earliest childhood. When I was just over one year old my mother gave me a toy chimpanzee, a large hairy model celebrating the birth of the first chimpanzee infant ever born in the London zoo. Most of my mother’s friends were horrified and predicted that the ghastly creature would give a small child nightmares; but Jubilee (as the celebrated infant itself was named) was my most loved possession and accompanied me on all my childhood travels. I still have the worn old toy.
Quite apart from Jubilee, I had been fascinated by live animals from the time when I first learned to crawl. One of my earliest recollections is of the day that I hid in a small stuffy henhouse in order to see how a hen laid an egg. I emerged after about five hours. The whole household had apparently been searching for me for hours, and my mother had even rung the police to report me missing.
It was about four years later, when I was eight, that I first decided I would go to Africa and live with wild animals when I grew up. Although when I left school at eighteen I took a secretarial course and then two different jobs, the longing for Africa was still very much with me. So much so that when I received an invitation to go and stay with a school friend at her parents’ farm in Kenya I handed in my resignation the same day and left a fascinating job at a documentary film studio in order to earn my fare to Africa by working as a waitress during the summer season in Bournemouth, my home town; it was impossible to save money in London.
“If you are interested in animals,” someone said to me about a month after my arrival in Africa, “then you should meet Dr. Leakey.” I had already started on a somewhat dreary office job, since I had not wanted to overstay my welcome at my friend’s farm. I went to see Louis Leakey at what is now the National Museum of natural history in Nairobi, where at that same time he was Curator. Somehow he must have sensed that my interest in animals was not just a passing phase, but was rooted deep, for on the spot he gave me a job as an assistant secretary.
I learned much while working at the museum. The staff all were keen naturalists full of enthusiasm and were happy to share some of their boundless knowledge with me. Best of all, I was offered the chance, with one other girl, of accompanying Dr. Leakey and his wife, Mary, on one of their annual paleontologi-cal expeditions to Olduvai Gorge on the Serengeti plains. In those days, before the opening up of the Serengeti to tourists, before the discoveries of Zinjanthropus (Nutcracker man) and Homo habilis at Olduvai, the area was completely secluded: the roads and tourist buses and light aircraft that pass there today were then undreamed of.
The digging itself was fascinating. For hours, as I picked away at the ancient clay or rock of the Olduvai fault to extract the remains of creatures that had lived millions of years ago, the task would be purely routine, but from time to time, and without warning, I would be filled with awe by the sight or the feel of some bone I held in my hand. This—this very bone—had once been part of a living, breathing animal that had walked and slept and propagated its species. What had it really look...