Talking Lemurs and Lions with Explorer Luke Dollar

Wildlife biologist, conservationist, and National Geographic Explorer Luke Dollar first came to Madagascar as an undergraduate field assistant in 1994. He spent more than a decade there conducting research on the fossa—a catlike nocturnal mammal—and the lemurs it preys on. Motivated by the habitat loss he witnessed, he has worked ever since to translate field studies and local conservation efforts into effective public policies, and now manages National Geographic's Big Cats Initiative. Luke sat down with us to talk about his history with National Geographic and the island of Madagascar.

How did you begin working with National Geographic?

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National Geographic Explorer Luke Dollar

I’m proud to be a National Geographic Explorer. My relationship goes back to 2000, when the National Geographic Channel and I made some films together in Madagascar. I was asked to help organize an expedition to the island for the Committee for Research and Exploration. In 2007, I was named an Emerging Explorer, and in 2009, I was asked to come aboard and help design and implement National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative. This is our action-oriented, field-based conservation effort to halt the global decline of big cats and restore the ecosystems they inhabit.

What originally brought you to Madagascar?

Madagascar is an evolutionary petri dish, owing to its isolation. It’s a microcosm for the conservation battles that rage across the entire planet—battles that can be examined more closely and firsthand in this unique and smaller environment. I see Madagascar as a window on the world. Madagascar is a wonderful place to visit and a laboratory for conservation success and failure.

I first visited the country as a field assistant on a lemur project. My mentor, Patricia Wright, helped create Ranomafana National Park, where she discovered the golden bamboo lemur in 1985. Countless scientists have worked here in the years since, publishing hundreds of important papers.

The lemur I was assigned to study was eaten by a virtually unknown predator called the fossa. This was the keystone predator in Madagascar, and we knew virtually nothing about it. Learning as much as I can about the fossa while working to protect its ecosystem has been a driving pursuit of the last two decades of my career.

Is there a relationship between your work in Madagascar and your efforts to promote big cat conservation?

There is. It’s apparent now that whether it’s fossa in Madagascar or lions in Tanzania, the problems and conflicts that endanger each are remarkably uniform, and the tools and techniques we engage to preserve them are the same. Everything I’ve done in Madagascar has helped inform, and in recent years benefited from, what I’ve learned working on the Big Cats Initiative.

My understanding of the necessity of community engagement and education came from early realizations in Madagascar with the fossa. The Big Cats Initiative has built more than 1,600 bomas—protective livestock enclosures—across Africa, every five of which prevent one lion death in terms of retaliatory killings every year. We’re now building coops in Madagascar to protect chickens from predation, which ultimately helps protect the fossa that prey on them from human vengeance, too.

You've joined National Geographic Expeditions travelers on our Madagascar Wildlife Expedition. What are some of the highlights of the trip?

I’m so excited to share the unique flora and fauna of this fantastic destination with travelers. More than 80 percent of the species we’re going to witness on our visit are unique to the island. We’re going to encounter the indri—the world’s largest lemur. There are none in captivity anywhere. Its haunting vocalizations will stay with you forever. Travelers will have lemurs on their shoulders when we visit Andasibe. There are 14 species of lemur in Ranomafana National Park. They’re beautiful creatures. And they’re a vision into what our own distant past may have looked like, because they’re a window into the evolutionary history of primates.

The ecosystems of Madagascar—rainforest, high plateau, and spiny forest—are spectacularly varied. We’ll travel across the high plateau to Isalo—what may look at first like the surface of the moon has its own flora and fauna. Then it's on to the spiny forest and the baobab forests of Tsimanampetsotsa, and to the beach at Anakao.

The diversity and uniqueness of Malagasy culture is just as captivating as its ecosystems. What brings me to Madagascar every year is the wildlife. What makes me immediately want to come back every time I leave is the people I meet. If you come, I know you’ll fall in love with them as I have.

Join Luke Dollar on National Geographic's Madagascar Wildlife Expedition.