Nature and Biodiversity

To save the planet's trees, we should treat them like people

Jane Goodall, Founder, Jane Goodall Institute, USA speaking during the Session "Close Encounters with Jane Goodall and Skye Meaker" at the Annual Meeting 2019 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, January 22, 2019. Congress Centre - Betazone. Copyright by World Economic Forum / Sandra Blaser

Goodall changed the way we felt about chimpanzees. Image: World Economic Forum / Sandra Blaser

Robin Pomeroy
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • Jane Goodall changed the way we think about chimpanzees by giving them names in the 1960s.
  • She argues we need a similar culture shift to name and protect trees.
  • The World Economic Forum has launched a "1 trillion tree" initiative to protect the world's forests.

When a young primatologist working in Africa in the 1960s gave names to the chimpanzees she was studying, many people were shocked - scientists are meant to keep an emotional distance from the subjects they are studying.

Now 85, Jane Goodall is not only unrepentant, she suggests we take the same approach to conserving trees.

"I changed the way that animal behavioural science was conducted, by giving chimpanzees names," Goodall said at the launch of the World Economic Forums trillion trees initiative in Davos.

Jane Goodall on saving trees at Davos

"I was absolutely castigated by the scientific community - I should have given them numbers."

By giving the animals names such as David Greybeard or Frodo, Goodall found she got people to care about them. And now she suggests we try it with trees.

"Well, what about naming trees? If you have a tree named for you?"


Tree conservation has become increasingly important for Goodall over the years as she realized it would be impossible to save chimpanzees if their habitats continued to be destroyed by human activity.

"I've always loved trees," she said. "The reason I left the the chimpanzee research at Gombe was when I realized that right across Africa forests were disappearing, chimp numbers were dropping.

Tree cover loss deforestation
Deforestation by country. Image: Statista

"And when I flew over my tiny Gombe National Park - it had been part of the great equatorial forest belt - but when I looked down in 1990 it was some tiny island surrounded by completely bare hills, and this is when it hit me. If we don't work with the people who are cutting down the trees, even on the steep slopes, because they're desperate to grow food for their families, then we'll we'll never be able to even try and save the chimpanzees."

So planting - and perhaps naming - trees, is something we should all be involved in.

"People say to me all the time: 'What can I do? What's one thing I can do?'

"You can plant a tree ... whether you plant the tree in your own backyard or whether you paid to have trees planted in Tanzania."


What’s the World Economic Forum doing about deforestation?

"The trillion tree project is exciting because everybody can get involved ... whether it's communities on the ground that are so important, businesses, politicians, political leaders, children, everybody.

"And if we have a tree in our name, we want that tree to live."

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Nature and BiodiversityClimate ActionForum InstitutionalSustainable Development
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