It has taught us that the similarities in biology and behavior between chimpanzees and humans are far greater than anyone had supposed. We are not, after all, the only beings with personalities, rational thought, and emotions. There is no sharp line dividing us from the chimpanzees and the other apes, and the differences that obviously exist are of degree, not of kind. This understanding gives us new respect not only for chimpanzees, but also for all the other amazing animals with whom we share this planet. For we humans are a part of, and not separate from, the animal kingdom. We are still studying the chimpanzees of Gombe, and I might well have stayed there, with the animals and forests I love, if I had not attended a conference called Understanding Chimpanzees.
It was that conference, in 1986, that changed the course of my life. Field researchers from all the study sites across Africa came together for the first time. There was one session on conservation that was utterly shocking. Right across their range, the chimpanzees' forests were being felled at a horrifying rate, they were being caught in poachers' snares, and the socalled bushmeat trade -- the commercial hunting of wild animals for food -- had begun. Chimpanzee numbers had plummeted since I began my study in 1960, from somewhere over a million to an estimated four to five hundred thousand (it is much less now). It was a wake-up call for me. I went to the conference as a scientist, planning to continue working in the field, analyzing and publishing my data. I left as an advocate for the chimpanzees and their vanishing forest home. I knew that to try to help the chimpanzees, I must leave the field and do my best to try to raise awareness and hope that we could start to halt at least some of the destruction.
And so, after spending twenty-six years of my life doing what I loved best in the place I loved best, I took to the road. And the more I traveled around the world, giving lectures, attending conferences, meeting with conservationists and legislators, the more I realized the extent of the devastation we are wreaking on our planet. It was not just the forests harboring chimpanzees and other African animals that were endangered -- it was forests and animals everywhere. And not only forests, but all of the natural world. Life on the road is hard. Since 1986, I have traveled some three hundred days a year. From America and Europe to Africa and Asia. From airport to hotel to lecture venue; from schoolroom to corporate conference room to government offices. But there are some perks along the way. I get to visit some incredible places. And I get to meet some truly wonderful and inspirational people. And I hear, among all the terrible news of the ongoing destruction of the natural world, some stories of people who have prevented the felling of an old-growth forest, stopped the building of a dam, succeeded in restoring a despoiled wetlands, saved a species from extinction.