"Rainy Days and Lemurs": Update

"Rainy Days and Lemurs," Duke Magazine, November-December 1994
October 1, 2003

Nine years ago, Luke Dollar ’95 was chasing lemurs with a dart gun and a burlap bag. Then a rising senior, he was a fledgling member of a Duke Primate Center project in Madagascar’s Ranomafana rain forest, where he caught and “processed” the creatures, taking anatomical measurements and teeth casts.

Now a doctoral fellow in conservation ecology in the Nicholas School, he’s chasing the thing that chases the lemur, the fossa. In fact, he was first introduced to the scythe-toothed, lemur-eating beast upon tracking a radio signal that led to a plastic collar and tufts of fur: lemur leftovers.

The fossa is the size of a bobcat with a dog-like snout and feline litheness. As Madagascar’s largest predator, it is, by all accounts, very mean with an indiscriminate appetite. It is Madagascar’s Big Bad Wolf but, like the mythical menace, it may soon live only in the fiction of lore.

The fossa is suffering a very real decline. Its fierce reputation and penchant for poultry are such that farmers kill the animal on sight. More devastating to the fossa, though, is the slash-and-burn agriculture that continues to threaten its natural habitat. But Dollar and team are working to reverse the trend. His greatest tool, Dollar says, is education.

After shooting a fossa with a tranquilizer, he takes it in its harmless state back to the village for tests and observation. Villagers get to see and touch a real, living fossa, and perhaps, the animal becomes something worth saving in their eyes—an attitude essential to any long-term conservation effort, says Dollar. Besides educating the local population, he vaccinates domestic animals against rabies and aids the Peace Corps in construction projects.

Using Geographic Information Systems data-managing software and LANDSAT Earth-mapping satellite images, Dollar and team have surveyed Madagascar’s protected areas, tracking deforestation rates and monitoring conservation efforts. Not fazed by the area’s political instability or threat of malaria (which he has had four times), Dollar is ambitious and unyielding in his approach.

He says it’s the only way to ensure survival of the species and habitats he studies. He is an animal lover who takes the specter of extinction very seriously. “If researchers aren’t paying attention to the conservation implications, they shouldn’t be doing research. And if they don’t have policy implications, they shouldn’t be there either.”