Photograph courtesy Luke Dollar
Luke Dollar, National Geographic Emerging Explorer, conservationist and scientist, has spent many years in Madagascar studying lemurs and a predator called the fossa. In recent months, he has been working with Dereck and Beverly Joubert on the Big Cats Initiative. The initiative is an effort to stop the decline in all big cat populations, but the first big push will be to halt lion population decline by 2015. Tigers and other big cats will quickly join the spotlight, especially since 2010 is the year of the tiger. National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence Dereck and Beverly Joubert and their years of attention on lion population decline have been the “cat-alyst” for the Big Cats program, says Dollar.
Big Cats is “an action-oriented, grassroots level program that has a fast response strategy in attempting solutions in all the places where big cats are,” says Dollar. "The initiative and many of the new Missions programs endeavor to do something because it makes a difference. It’s about what you leave behind, not what you record. In the past we have recorded lots of information on lions [that may] have implications for conservation, but it begs the question, who implements these recommendations?” Big Cats hopes to answer that question.
NG Kids: What were you like as a kid?
Dollar: I am so a kid—just ask my wife! I get the eye-roll on a daily basis. But as a kid, I was an explorer. My early childhood was on my grandparents’ farm in a rural Alabama community. It wasn’t unusual for me to go to the woods or out on the farm and make it home by dark-ish. And I enjoyed that.
Combined with that, from the time I was 6 to 16 [years old] I was a professional actor. My mom was in charge of doing the curriculum for the gifted and talented program and she had a student that was going to audition for a summer stock show in Birmingham. The person couldn’t go, so my mom said, hey Luke, why don’t you audition for it? And I said, can I have some quarters for the arcade games? And she said okay, and I got the part. So for a decade I went everywhere from the rural Alabama farm to D.C. to L.A. to New York to Virginia—all over the U.S. doing stage productions—everything from 78 performances of the Music Man to Shakespeare, Oliver, and the rest.
It was an interesting combination of being center stage and in the spotlight as a child actor, and when I wasn’t, I was in the middle of rural arm pit Alabama and lovin’ it.
The skills that I developed on stage during that period are the exact same ones that I still use when I am talking about the science I do, or an outreach about Madagascar or when I walk up to someone for the first time and speak a language that’s not my first.
The rural Alabama upbringing is what kept me wild. It’s this combination that led me to the National Geographic.
NG Kids: Do you have a hero or did you when you were young?
Dollar: Oh yeah. I have several. I was adopted by my [step]dad—he married my mother…and he was primary caregiver even after their marriage dissolved. He is the only person I have ever met who completely walks the walk that he talks. He epitomizes the Southern gentleman…but he grew up in a barn and his dad was a part-time coal miner. By the time he was 25, he had built a two story home [for his parents]. To meet him and speak to him is to realize that you can live up to any standard to which you aspire….I talk to him everyday.
The other heroes [were] created: Atticus Finch [from To Kill a Mockingbird] and Indiana Jones. And I aspire to be a conglomeration of those three.
NG Kids: What do you daydream about?
Dollar: I don’t have to daydream because I am doing exactly what I want to do with my life. I am the luckiest person I know. Daydreaming to me is planning, it’s not dreaming. I am aware how unique and blessed that situation is. Sometimes I do daydream about sleep, because I don’t sleep a lot because I am spending every waking moment pursuing the things I love.
NG Kids: How did you get into your field of work?
Dollar: I grew up a rural farm boy and wild child of the woods and came to love wilderness and wild things. I was the kid with stuff in his pockets that wasn’t necessarily dead. We were better off than the family in The Yearling, but I felt a lot like Jody when I finally read the book, or little Arliss from Old Yeller who was always running around being spunky and with unnecessary things in his pockets.
I became a photographer and did photography for the local paper. I did a lot of photography in high school. I filled out an application to one university, Duke [University] and got in. Phew! Duke now has a primate center, the Lemur Center, which is the largest captive population of lemurs in the world. I got a job there as a work study student before I started my freshman year scooping lemur poop.
Two years later I had the opportunity to go to Madagascar. I wondered do I want to go in the military or be a doctor? The summer after my freshman year I went to UCLA and became an [Emergency Medical Technician] EMT, but later in that summer I went home to Alabama and one of our relatives had sold off the timber in those woods I grew up in. And I decided that people have enough help. I knew that I wanted to pursue the wildlife aspects of my interests.
So I went to Madagascar to study lemurs and one was eaten by a carnivore that no one knew anything about—the fossa. That was the beginning.
NG Kids: What’s a normal day like for you?
Dollar: I don’t have normal days. There is no predictability in my days, but what is predictable is that it’s gonna start before the sun is up and end well after the next day has arrived. We live in a global society and by the time I am up at 5 a.m., it’s 2 in the afternoon in Madagascar.
The day is going to be full of stuff that I love. I am a professor in North Carolina….at Pfieffer University. When I got there they said, we need an environmental science program. So I got to develop the major and the curriculum.
NG Kids: What do you do for fun or to be silly?
Dollar: I play with my dogs and train them. They are Chesapeake Bay retrievers. I wrestle with my son Zachary. The most wonderful sound in the world is a baby’s laughter. I would crawl a mile through broken glass to make him laugh. Being silly is spontaneous. It really is [my nature]. I fully invest in my world view. There is humor in everything and you just have to have the perspective that you are going to see that as opposed to the worst.
NG Kids: What is the best place you have ever traveled to?
Dollar: I am pretty happy in my son’s nursery. I don’t want to pick. The place that I know I am the first non-local person that anybody has ever encountered, where I am playing the role of the extra-terrestrial. That is pretty cool. There are places on Earth where there is still first contact for the generation you are interacting with.
One of my best days was going bungee jumping in the Nile [river] and white water rafting down it later in the day. That was in Uganda….that was a good day.
NG Kids: What is the best piece of advice that anyone have gave you that you can share with us?
Dollar: No one specifically gave me this advice, but my environment, my upbringing, my education all led me to this mantra, if you can conceive it you can achieve it. The person that is ultimately responsible for the success or failure, is you. If you don’t own the shortcomings you can’t take credit for the successes.
NG Kids: What’s the one thing you can’t travel without?
Dollar: A sense of humor, flexibility, and a can-do attitude. But my original response was soy sauce. If we run out of soy sauce, the expedition is over. Another response can be toilet paper, but no…I have been in lots of places without toilet paper. Important piece of advice, if the leaves have spines on them, leave them on the plant.
NG Kids: What advice would you give kids about the environment?
Dollar: No is not an answer; it’s an indication you need to ask the next person in line.