The Little Known Story of Leakey's Angels
Even if you weren’t alive and kicking for the famous television show Charlie’s Angels, I’m confident you’ve belted out the lyrics to “Independent Women” by Destiny's Child: “Tell me what you think about me/I buy my own diamonds and I buy my own rings” from the Charlie’s Angels movie soundtrack at some point.
“Leakey’s Angels” don’t quite have the same pop culture allure as Charlie’s Angels, but there are some uncanny similarities between this environmentally-conscious, primate-researching, all-female trio and the 70s crime-busting contingent. For one, Charlie’s Angels were detectives (albeit fictional), hunting out and discovering the clues and answers to solve crimes. Leakey’s Angels? Three women commissioned by anthropologist Louis Leakey to uncover the mysteries of the primate world, making groundbreaking discoveries in their respective fields.
In addition, both groups were undeniably and absolutely independent women (throw your hands up at me). For Leakey’s Angels — better known as “the Trimates,” the nickname that gives them more merit than referencing them only through a man — this independence is an understatement. In a period when academia was dominated by men, especially within science, these women were pioneers. They uncovered behaviors in primates that had never before been discovered, and in doing so, transformed the field of primatology and reshaped how human behavior was understood. Wildly dedicated to their studies, Goodall, Fossey, and Galdikas committed decades of their lives to their research, living in rural and isolated areas far from home — in Tanzania, Rwanda and Borneo, respectively.
While it’s easy to draw top line comparisons between these famed female trios, the reality, of course, is that the legacy of the Trimates is much greater and much deeper than any pop culture reference. Not only that, the legacies of Goodall, Fossey, and Galdikas are woven into the issue of palm oil and its relationship with the destruction of natural habitats — issues still being fought today.
With 55 years under her belt studying the behavior of wild chimpanzees in the Gombe National Park of Tanzania, British born Jane Goodall has been dubbed the world’s greatest expert on chimpanzees. Her journey of study began in 1960, and without background training, thanks to a call she made to Louis Leakey while working in Kenya. She intended to simply discuss animals, but that conversation set Goodall’s life in motion as she was soon after commissioned by Leakey as a chimpanzee researcher.
Goodall observed behaviors in chimpanzees that had never before been documented — from hugs and kisses, pats on the back and tickles, to the construction and use of tools. In doing so, she concluded, “It isn’t only human beings who have personality, who are capable of rational thought and emotions like joy and sorrow.” Goodall’s unwavering commitment to her study meant that she developed an unprecedented bond with the chimpanzees within Gombe. She can call herself not only a Dame, a primatologist, ethologist, anthropologist, and UN Messenger of Peace, but the only human to be accepted into chimpanzee society; Goodall was the lowest ranking member of a troop for 22 months.
Unsurprisingly, Goodall’s intimate understanding of nature and chimpanzees, honed over decades of living in Gombe’s National Park, developed a spirit of activism within her. Beyond starting her own conservation institute and program, Goodall is a proud vegetarian who campaigns against the use of animals in medical research, farming, and sport and for the conservation of nature, ethical consumption, and conscious living.
She says, “It's really up to us. We're the ones who can make a difference. If we lead lives where we consciously leave the lightest possible ecological footprints, if we buy the things that are ethical for us to buy and don't buy the things that are not, we can change the world overnight.”
Fossey was commissioned by Leakey to study mountain gorillas, first in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and then, after civil unrest there, in the mountain forests of Rwanda. It wouldn’t do justice to her story if I didn’t mention how she encountered Leakey. While on a once in a lifetime trip to Africa, Fossey came to Leakey’s attention when she sprained her ankle, fell into an excavation pit, and vomited on a giraffe fossil. Some time later, Leakey gave a lecture in the US, which Fossey attended. Unsurprisingly, Leakey remembered her and, after a conversation and an hour interview, she became his gorilla researcher.
Fossey became known to locals while in Rwanda as “Nyirmachabelli” or “the woman who lives alone on the mountain.” American Fossey developed a genuine relationship with the gorillas of the Rwandan mountains — gorillas that had previously only known humans as poachers. Through her study, she became recognized as the world’s leading authority on the behavior of mountain gorillas, having discovered them to be highly social creatures with individual personalities, strong familial relationships, and great dignity.
Unfortunately, great controversy surrounded the methods utilized by Fossey in her research. It’s reported that as she grew in closeness and understanding of the gorillas, she developed a greater dislike for humans and was known for abusing those she suspected a poachers, as well as for opposing tourism in the area. It’s under this cloud that her death is ultimately suspected to be linked. Fossey was found brutally murdered in her mountain top cabin in 1985.
Poignantly, the last entry in her diary read, “When you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate more on the preservation of the future.”
Lithuanian Galdikas was the Trimate whose research centered around orangutans and, much like Goodall and Fossey are within their studies, is considered the leading authority on this well-loved primate. Her encounter with Leakey was one that required a lot more hustle than Goodall and Fossey, as Galdikas had already set her heart on studying orangutans. She managed to convince Leakey of being fit to do so three years after they first met at UCLA.
A true explorer, 25 year old Galdikas arrived in the thick jungle of Borneo, an environment considered inhospitable. Galdikas was undeterred. Through her research, conducted over 30 years, Galdikas has uncovered an understanding of orangutan behaviors, habitat, and diet previously unknown. More than that, she brought orangutans and their plight into the world’s consciousness, becoming an activist for their habitat she saw disappearing around her due to logging, gold mining, and palm oil plantations.
Galdikas is still rocking it now. A leading professor at a number of universities, Galdikas is also president of Orangutan Foundation International where she fights to rehabilitate orphaned orangutans and preserve their rainforests. The scientific understanding of orangutans Galdikas pioneered in the 70s is still growing. “Camp Leakey,” established by Galdikas in 1971 and named after her mentor, is today a buzzing hub of scientists, students, and park rangers that sits under the rainforest canopy in central Borneo. Here, the legacy of research forged by Leakey and Galdikas continues.
What binds these women together beyond their profound research into primates? They dwelt in nature and they loved it; they understood its fragility and the influence of humans on it. The Trimates may be considered a trio, but we want in on their gang and the legacy these independent women have crafted to defend the diverse, luscious landscapes of our planet, and the primates that inhabit them.