Field Notes


What's it like to travel with National Geographic? Take a look at these reports from the field.

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 island’s fossa—a catlike nocturnal mammal—and the lemurs on which it preys. Motivated by the habitat loss he witnessed, he has worked ever since to translate field studies and local conservation efforts into effective public policies. Luke now manages National Geographic's Big Cats Initiative.

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, but which can be examined more closely and firsthand in this unique and smaller environment. I look at Madagascar as a window on the world. You can see what’s happening here on a bounded island, and it’s one of the things that makes Madagascar such a wonderful place to visit, 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. Literally thousands of scientists have worked here in the years since, publishing hundreds of critically 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. I’d been involved in primatology for three years at that point, but I became fascinated with the fossa, so I switched to carnivore observation and behavior. Ultimately, my interest expanded to conservation as well. 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.

How did you end up working with National Geographic?

I’m proud to be a National Geographic Explorer. My relationship goes back to 2000, when National Geographic television 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 (the people who award grants for scientific projects). In 2007, I was named an Emerging Explorer, which was a great honor. 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.

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 in fact 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.

For example, take the necessity of community engagement in conservation. Take the necessity of education. For me, these came from early realizations in Madagascar with the fossa. Similarly, the Geographic’s 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.

What are some of the highlights of our new Madagascar expedition?

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. I can’t take you anywhere else in the world and show you what I’m going to show you in Madagascar.

We’re going to encounter the indri—the world’s largest lemur—within days of arriving. 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. Then we’re going into the forest, where we’re guaranteed to see lemurs. 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. Lemurs are prosimians, which are thought to be the most closely associated modern representations of what all primates may have looked like at one point.

The ecosystems of Madagascar—rain forest, high plateau, and spiny forest, all of which we’ll encounter—are spectacular, so varied. We’ll travel across the high plateau to Isalo, where what may look at first like the surface of the moon has its own flora and fauna. Then 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.