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Volunteers go to extremes to save Malagasy wildlife
15 March 2007

An Earthwatch volunteer holds an anesthetized fossa in remote Kirindy Mitea National Park. Despite the fierce reputation of these cat-like carnivores, their numbers are declining in more accessible forests of Madagascar. Photo: Tania Taranovski/Earthwatch InstituteAn Earthwatch volunteer holds an anesthetized fossa in remote Kirindy Mitea National Park. Despite the fierce reputation of these cat-like carnivores, their numbers are declining in more accessible forests of Madagascar. Photo: Tania Taranovski/Earthwatch Institute
Ankarafantsika, Madagascar: "Madagascar is the first battle in the war to save nature and we're going to win or lose within the next 15 to 20 years," said Dollar, principal investigator of Earthwatch's Carnivores of Madagascar project. He has been chosen as a 2007 National Geographic Emerging Explorer, a program celebrating the next generation of top researchers and adventurers.

With support from Earthwatch since the late 1990s, Dollar has focused on the ecology of the fossa (pronounced FOO-sah), an unusual and little-known predator of Madagascar's forests, found nowhere else in the world. Although not much bigger than a fox, with the stealth of a puma and tenacity of a mongoose, the fossa is Madagascar's top predator. Dollar's research and conservation efforts come in the nick of time, as deforestation and hunting for bush meat threatens fossas and other Malagasy wildlife.

Earthwatch teams are helping Dollar monitor populations of predators at Ankarafantsika National Park, in northwest Madagascar, and the very remote Kirindy Mitea National Park. The latter site, which Dollar refers to as "Earthwatch Extreme," is 100 kilometers from the nearest paved road, and 20 kilometers from standing water. It is only site in Madagascar where he has found large areas of regenerating dry forest.

Much of Dollar's work is focused on supporting local community efforts to sustain their natural heritage and livelihoods. Dollar and his colleagues have helped renovate schools in the village of Andranofasika, and sponsor the higher education of promising students. Right now, the project is supporting eight such students, between sixth grade and college.

Earthwatch Volunteers, scientists, and community members also banded together to save 6.5 hectares of forest outside of Ankarafantsika National Park. The reserve was one of the last unprotected parcels in the area with forest left in the wake of expanding Andranofasika village. In a matter of days, Dollar and his Earthwatch team saw two hectares converted from forest into charcoal, used locally for fuel.

"Within weeks, this entire parcel was going to be obliterated, turned into charcoal," said Dollar. "It was the last stretch of natural land surround by wasteland. The rest of it looks like the moon. Our vision was that it would be sort of an Andranofasika Central Park, a natural space that villagers can go to freely and legally" (villagers need to pay to visit the nearby national park).

Volunteer and HSBC fellow Andy Duffy raised most of the US$7,000 needed through a 50 kilometer sponsored walk in the UK, and co-principal investigator Dr. Julie Pomerantz, from Pfeiffer University, contributed another portion. They purchased the land under the condition that the town promised protection of the forest.

Other Earthwatch volunteers who have worked with Dollar have gone beyond the project to contribute to local sustainability. Dr. Peter Balasky, a Florida veterinarian, founded "Friends of Madagascar." Working with co-principal investigator Pierrot Rahajanirina, he has helped build and renovate several schools throughout the Malagasy countryside. Most recently, Balasky arranged the donation of more than 75,000 soccer uniforms and 5,000 balls.

"I'm so impressed with these volunteers who have made an incredible difference on their own for Madagascar," said Dollar. "I think it is a feather in the cap of Earthwatch that the organization has attracted and fledged such amazing volunteers."

Dollar and seven other 2007 Emerging Explorers each receive a $10,000 award, plus the publicity and exposure afforded by the National Geographic.

"I'm looking at the other Emerging Explorers, some that I have known and some that I know by reputation, and I'm just blown away," said Dollar, who will be speaking at the Royal Geographic Society in London on 29 March 2007. "These guys are heroes and models to the world, and it is a huge honor to be counted among them."