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"Trimates": The Women Who Revolutionized Primatology

The year is 1960, and 26-year-old Jane Goodall has just set foot in what is now Tanzania. In the academic and male-dominated field of primatology, Goodall began the unheard-of approach of living alongside chimpanzees in their habitat to observe their natural behavior. Her mission is not simply to study chimpanzees; she is about to embark on a groundbreaking, lifelong expedition of understanding humankind's closest living relatives.

Less than a decade later, two other women dove into primatology, picking up Goodall's immersive, empathetic, and hands-on approach to primate research: Dian Fossey, who studied mountain gorillas in Rwanda, and Biruté Galdikas, who journeyed to Southeast Asia to study orangutans.

From left to right: Dian Fossey, Jane Goodall, Biruté Galdikas. Picture courtesy of The Jane Goodall Institute, no copyright infringement intended.

Together, the three researchers dubbed "The Trimates" focused their research on a particular primate in the great ape family. And together, their research has revolutionized our understanding of great apes, unveiled their complex social relationships, and spearheaded conservation efforts in the face of endangerment and habitat loss.

A Novel Approach to Research

At the time of the Trimates' research, primatologists seldom saw their actual research subjects outside of captivity. In Fossey's case, mountain gorillas' primary contact with humans had been through poaching, so establishing a bond and trust with the creatures took time and determination. But through the Trimates' ability to live alongside and observe the great apes for extended periods, they made groundbreaking discoveries about their research subjects.

Goodall discovered the marked similarities between human and chimpanzee behavior. Her discovery that chimps use tools was considered one of her most important observations. However, she also observed behaviors representative of their capacity for human-like affection, such as hugging, kissing, and tickling. She saw their darker side, watching aggressively dominant females killing younger ones. Her memoir also documents the "Gombe Chimpanzee War," a sustained conflict between two chimpanzee troops. But all of these behaviors helped unveil just how closely chimpanzee social structures mirror our own.

In the jungles of the Congo and Rwanda, life for Dian Fossey was markedly different from Goodall's life in what is now Tanzania. Fossey delved into her research in these locations during conflict and unrest. Over time, as she learned just how intense the poaching problem was in these areas, she focused her attention on the immediate protection of the gorillas and animals of the jungle. Her "Digit Fund," named for her favorite gorilla, which poachers ultimately killed, became the basis for the modern-day Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, which helps protect these remarkable creatures.

Starting her research later than Goodall and Fossey, Galdikas similarly opened a window into the then-mysterious lives of orangutans. Galdikas lived and traversed through thick, swampy areas to bring attention to orangutans of the rainforest. She provided insights into orangutan social structures, diet, and birth intervals. As her research took further root, Galdikas turned her attention toward conservation of the creatures, specifically on conserving their rainforest habitat, which was rapidly shrinking. The article she wrote for National Geographic gave orangutans international attention for the first time.

Lives and Legacies

All three women continue to serve as inspirations and pioneers in primatology. All three have written books documenting their experiences and findings, and Goodall and Galdikas continue to speak on conservation. At 53, Dian Fossey was brutally murdered at her cabin in Rwanda. Although it remains unsolved, experts believe poachers killed her due to her aggressive opposition to the practice. At Dancing Zebra Safari, we often send gorilla trekkers to visit her remarkable Karisoke Research Center that still operates today.

Without the Trimates, we would not have the same understanding and awareness of these creatures. These women's conservation efforts and research have not only allowed us new insights but have given the creatures the space to thrive. These women's lives inspire us as they exhibit ordinary people making an extraordinary impact. The Trimates help us remember that the animal kingdom is not so different from our own every day. Even in the face of environmental degradation and habitat loss, let us not forget, like Jane Goodall, that "it is not too late to turn things around if we all do our part" (Goodall, 2018).

If you are interested in donating to continue the conservation efforts of these remarkable women, you may do so at these websites:

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