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Jane Goodall and the Ethics of Conservation

Xavier MacLaren


The domain of ecology, a field of study largely based on the work of twentieth-century scientists, such as Jane Goodall, investigates the relationships between different species of living organisms and their environment. The work done by ecologists, less chemical and experimental and more often statistical, political, and ethical, involves making decisions as to which species are most important to protect in a threatened ecosystem, which natural ecosystems and bioregions should be protected at what cost, and finding the most effective ways to protect targeted species while minimizing harm done to them. These wide-ranging challenges often come into conflict with social values, human development, and industry, and one of the first researchers to face an issue of this magnitude in the field was Jane Goodall. Born in 1934, this English primatologist and anthropologist conducted extensive research in Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania, examining the social and family life of chimpanzees and their interactions with their food chain. 

One of the most important ethical dilemmas faced by ecologists is balancing the necessity of conserving endangered species with the external pressures of deforestation, the trade of wildlife, and biomedical research for the sake of economic development. Often, the strategy employed by ecologists to counter the extreme pressure placed on whole ecosystems by agriculture-related deforestation, wildlife trade, timber production, and the innumerable other causes of habitat loss, is to protect a single species at a time. These species are often keystone species, meaning that their numbers are relatively low in a given environment, proportionally to the ecological impact they have: this can apply to seed-dispersing primates and birds, apex predator fish, and insect pollinators, and the benefits of conserving these species are often not only much more significant than protecting other species, but are more effective and realistic ways to preserve ecosystems in the face of human development in sensitive areas than an all-or-nothing blanket conservation approach. Gorillas and chimpanzees are often described as falling under this category, being indispensable seed dispersers, and the conservation work of Jane Goodall in Tanzania, alongside her peers Dian Fossey and Biruté Galdikas, has been essential to protecting not only these Great Apes, but also their environments, in ways that the local communities around them are able to develop within certain boundaries. 


The work of Jane Goodall, one of the eminent ethologists and wildlife biologists of the twentieth century, in chimpanzee conservation in Tanzania, was confronted by multiple ethical quandaries during the thirty years that she conducted research in Gombe National Park. The sale of primates for biomedical testing, the importance of the bushmeat trade to the region’s economy and nutrition, and the formerly unstoppable expansion of agricultural areas into rainforest, all raised important questions about the role of a British scientist becoming implicated in local politics and land use of a formerly colonized African people undergoing rapid economic development. However, the utility of the TACARE program’s education, cooperative land-use planning, and development of forest-friendly economic opportunities, alongside the duty that humanity has always had, but feels now more than ever due to Goodall’s description of chimpanzees as “kin,” to protect our primate neighbours, arguably outweigh the negative consequences of ecosystem conservation in Tanzania. As we look elsewhere in the world, all the way to Quebec with its threatened caribou herds and disappearing chorus frogs (the rainette faux-grillon), compromises must be made to conserve any amount of intact ecosystems. Goodall reminds us wisely that “Lasting change is a series of compromises. And compromise is all right, as long as your values don’t change.”

1 Comment

han gu
han gu
Jun 25

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