The Queen of Gombe

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Since when is Jane Goodall such a diva? The light is dim in a friend's London townhouse, but she has dark, wraparound, Hepburnian sunglasses on anyway. After 44 years studying chimpanzees, Goodall, 70, is the world's most renowned animal-behavior researcher. But the glasses? "My Hollywood look!" she says with a laugh. In truth, they're a sign of the anti-diva. For months, she has battled an eye infection. Six specialists on four continents have all said the same thing: Rest. "They say, 'You don't give your body a chance to fight it off,'" she says. "But there's only one of me."

And so much to do. The Jane Goodall Institute, founded in 1977, now has a global staff of more than 250 to carry out its research and conservation campaigns. But the London-born Goodall is its face, its heart, its most effective publicist and its best fund raiser. Her top priorities right now are Roots & Shoots, the Institute's youth program promoting community service and good stewardship of resources that operates in 87 countries; and tacare ("take care"), a sustainable-development program that includes education and microloan initiatives for villages in Tanzania, Cameroon and the Republic of the Congo. "How can we save the chimps," she says, "when the people are struggling to survive?"

Goodall never intended to be a campaigner. Her plan from age 8 was "to go live in Africa, spend time with animals, and write books about them." She's done that since 1960, when paleontologist Louis Leakey saw her passion and sent her to Gombe National Park in Tanzania to study chimps. Her biggest discovery came that year, when she observed them making primitive hunting tools, the first time nonhumans had been seen doing so. Through her work with Homo sapiens' closest relative — chimps have at least 95% of the same dna — she realized that, to help animals, she'd have to reach out to humans, encouraging them to look after the world around them. The lifelong introvert overcame her shyness "out of necessity." Hearing few voices of optimism, she has raised hers, now spending 300 days a year traveling, lecturing about her research, and telling people, in her gentle, teacherly voice, "to keep up their hope, to feel that what they do can make a difference."

Which leaves little time for Goodall to spend at Gombe. In July, she made it back for a brief visit. She smelled rain, earth and fermenting figs, and ran into a chimpanzee named Gremlin ("a very good mother"), who had just weaned her twins. Only the calls of other chimps and baboons broke the forest's quiet rustle. It felt as if she'd never left: "The years dropped away. Sitting there, I got back that feeling of discovery."

But the wind soon brought from over the hills the stench of burning forest — a reminder of the ongoing damage that she's fighting to undo. "So you go on," Goodall says, "and you say, Let's do our jolly best, and see how it turns out. I have hope." — By Jeff Chu/London