We were first introduced to conservation ecologist and National Geographic Emerging
Explorer Luke Dollar’s work a month ago during his engaging presentation at the 2009 National Geographic Explorers Symposium. It was impossible to not be entirely absorbed by his story and experiences on the African island of Madagascar.
Years ago, Luke began his work in Madagascar as a student tracking lemurs, but his target of interest quickly turned elsewhere when one of his animal subjects went missing, and was found later to have been devoured by the locally-infamous carnivore, the Fossa.
Since that time Luke’s efforts have been solely focused on this new scope of study: examining the natural history and ecological role of the Fossa, Madagascar’s largest endemic (exclusively native) predator. The fossa’s importance as a keystone species is growing as Madagascar faces increasingly serious conservation issues – particularly deforestation.
Dollar is one scientist making a distinct difference in Madagascar’s future, and he has taken a leading role in citizen science by working with the Earthwatch organization to engage the public in his research overseas.
Luke was generous enough to talk with us about his research and his work with citizen scientists. Check out our short but inspiring interview with this intriguing explorer:
MWW: When did you first know you wanted to be a scientist?
Luke: As a child, I was always sure I wanted to be either a doctor or a scientist. The summer after my freshman year at Duke University, I went to Los Angeles and worked as an ambulance-based EMT and ER technician. It was an invaluable, hands-on experience. However when I returned to my childhood home in Alabama that summer, I visited my grandparents farm and took a walk through the woods I grew up in. I came across a large newly clear-cut forest, where I had once sat for hundreds of hours alone as a kid thinking and dreaming. It was then that I developed a concern and love of the outdoors and interest in nature conservation. I found the motives behind this destructive logging superficial and heartbreaking, and I realized that most people had enough help but nature didn’t.
As a young, rural, southern boy, I had often gone fishing hunting and hiking in the forest behind my grandparents’ home. I had particularly enjoyed the beauty of the area, where I would hike up old wagon trails and look out on the wide majestic valleys. Returning after such a short period of time, and experiencing this drastic change was as traumatic as losing a loved one to an avoidable accident.
Luke: With science, I can take advantage of the rare opportunity to create knowledge, and through Earthwatch I can create a force multiplier effect of that knowledge. People from all walks of life get to experience what I experience and then appreciate those same things that may have once drew me in, and that I now sometimes take for granted. Kids involved with the project are now going to spend their entire careers doing what I do, and now it’s not just my lifetime where I am a catalyst in this effort. Now it’s 30 or 50 lifetimes more that will do great things for this planet. I believe you must trumpet the benefits and accomplishments of your work to the public for the greater good or you might as well have wasted your time. By engaging the public, I can do that.
MWW: Why enlist members of the public to assist with your research rather than rely solely on policy makers and professional researchers, particularly when addressing the Malagasy’s unsustainable agricultural practices?
Luke: We can have all cocktail parties we want, pass all the policies we can, but until we address the immediate needs of people at the grassroots level, people living IN nature, we are just creating spin. Being a boots-on-the-ground, sand-between-my-toes kind of guy, I feel that I am addressing the roots of the problem rather than dabbling around the edge of the problem. By bringing in volunteers that can help the Malagasy people, by not simply telling them to “stop growing things” but by providing them with sustainable alternative agricultural alternatives, we are much closer to solving the problem.
MWW: You work with a lot of students. What kind of student development do you see in your projects?
Luke: The most important student development is that of the Malagasy students, I want them to have first hand awareness of what the problems are and then use that knowledge to make better decisions. Their citizenship creates a sense of credibility; unfortunately it is a predisposed notion if you look different, people can’t relate to you. So I find that my interactions with Malagasy students, who can then go on to change Madagascar themselves, are incredibly important. The best thing I can do is to support Malagasy people working with other Malagasy people.
MWW: In your work in Madagascar, you bring together a diverse range of local residents and stakeholders, as well as American and European volunteers. Is it challenging to bridge the cultural divide between these groups? What benefits are there to the collaboration, both for you research and for participants involved?
Luke: In terms of “bridging the gap” it all comes down to meal time there: there is no such thing as ‘clumping’ allowed. Really, things are freakishly idyllic; everyone is genuinely interested in one another and it then translates into their external interactions with others in the field.
MWW: Having lived in Madagascar a few years myself, I really loved how you used the Malagasy “Lamba” as a marketing tool! You’ve developed an incredible awareness campaign to educate Malagasy residents about the importance of protecting Fossa. Can you tell us about some other marketing efforts you’ve made?
Luke: As you may or may not know, in Madagascar there is no system of formal mass communications. Therefore, our efforts were more on the grassroots level. One of our most successful initiatives was the Malagasy Taxi-Brousse. Our team would give taxi-brousse drivers materials such as stickers, postcards, posters etc. every few weeks. Take six taxi brousses in Antananarivo, the capital and center of Madagascar, that then travel in six different directions, and your message will travel quickly. These taxi-brousses are how villages on the outside of the city get their daily news, and through word of mouth there is an immediate dissemination into the primary rural countryside.
MWW: Do you predict participation in citizen science programs will expand?
Luke: I believe my own project is an example that citizen scientists become students who become full fledged scientists. I have had a number of students and volunteers that have entirely changed their career paths and studies after their experience in Madagascar. I have even on occasion had volunteers who have gone on to receive PhD’s, one of which is now our full-time Fossa veterinarian! With “citizen science,” in many cases you take citizens and they BECOME scientists.
After just an hour of speaking with Luke we were both enlightened and inspired. One can only imagine what sharing a few weeks with him in the field, deep in the forests of Madagascar, would be like! Luke’s passion for conservation and adventure is truly heroic. As he told us “There’s no reason that we can’t make explorers heroes in the eyes of our children…we want to get these students saying THIS is what’s cool”
Citizen science, as demonstrated by Luke’s initiatives in Madagascar and our previous blog postings on the topic, offers a vast and enticing range of opportunities. Whether you want to explore your own back yard or journey across the globe, taking a role in citizen science can land you in, as Luke describes it “unbelievably exotic places to study rare and exciting animals about which we know very little.”
“Who do you think you’re going to talk to more at the cocktail party?” Luke remarks. “The person who went to Club Med and can’t remember what they did each day, or the person who went to Madagascar and trekked 250 miles in 2 weeks?”
If you want to get involved in Citizen Science and/or the Fossa program, check out these sites for more information on how to get started exploring and observing your world!
Kirsten and Sarah Jane for My Wonderful World