Photograph courtesy Luke Dollar
About 150 million years ago, a sizeable chunk of Africa broke away and floated into the Indian Ocean, allowing the rich array of primitive animals aboard the newly formed island to evolve in isolation. Today, the miracle that is Madagascar holds more than 200,000 species of plants and animals, many found no place else on the planet. But since the arrival of people 2,000 years ago, more than 90 percent of its original forest has been destroyed, carrying many species into extinction.
No one understands the urgency of saving this threatened evolutionary wonder better than Dr. Luke Dollar, a scientist devoted to ensuring every minute and dollar spent on conservation efforts counts. "A conservation project may be well-funded and issue glowing reports, but if 25 percent of forest cover is lost while it is in effect, something's wrong," Dollar explains. "When I arrived, my work was on the ground and I could see the habitat disappearing. I needed a way to quantify the qualitative claims being made by conservation management. I used satellite images, and pictures don't lie. Comparing an image of an area taken at one point in time, with an image of the same area later provides an irrefutable measure of the success or failure of conservation programs, no sugarcoating. It also shows what areas need the most attention first."
Grassroots efforts such as this are Dollar's passion. "I'm a big fan of muddy boots. Field biologists are there in the forest, fighting the fight. We see what's happening to habitat firsthand, and that knowledge is invaluable—without it, bad decisions will be made."
Dollar stresses that to simply go to a remote place, collect data on a little known species, and write papers is no longer enough. "We need to let policymakers know what's happening. My best days involve working in the field, then flying to the capital city to meet with government officials, then flying back to the field."
"I take the money I raise or borrow straight to the ground level and get more bang for my buck," he reports. A prime example is his work with a group of village women. Overhearing them sing as they pounded rice, Dollar knew other outsiders would love to hear their music. He convinced the group to sing for a few research groups he was leading. The women used the money they made from those appearances to create a campsite. "This was their idea, their initiative," Dollar notes. "The project grew and since 2000 they've served more than 60,000 plates of food to researchers and ecotourists. They've put wells in their settlements, enrolled every child in school, and eliminated the need for slash-and-burn agriculture that destroys habitat in their area."
Expanding on their success, Dollar raised money to finance unlimited education for any qualified local child. "My goal," he explains, "is to one day have a director of the national park service who came from one of these forest villages and knows what it's like on the ground."
Dollar first came to Madagascar in 1994 as an undergraduate research assistant studying lemurs with Duke University. The lemur he was assigned to follow was eaten by a fossa, an elusive predator found only in Madagascar. Dollar was instantly intrigued and upon discovering the species had never been studied, vowed to return. "Here was a mysterious predator which sat atop the food chain in the world's top biodiversity hot spot, yet no one knew anything about it. As a flagship species, the fossa plays a crucial role in maintaining the equilibrium of Madagascar's entire food chain."
Dollar's decade of fieldwork has quantified the fossa's shrinking numbers, now about 2,500, and yielded a trove of data on its biology and behavior.
"When you're in the field it's muddy, sweaty, stinky, gritty—there's no sex appeal to it at all, but it's great fun. I wake up every morning knowing I'm one of the luckiest guys on Earth because I'm doing exactly what I want to do and it's going to make a difference."
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