As Dollar talked, the camp mascot—a common brown lemur named Piper—leapt up onto his lap for a scratching. In the wild, a fossa’s face is often the last thing a lemur sees. But no one has ever seen the killing done. Biologist Clare Hawkins, who has captured an astonishing 43 fossa, believes the animal hunts alone, and that it stalks and rushes its prey like a cat. “There is absolutely no nervousness,’’ she says. “They just get on about their business.’’ Because he often finds the remains of a kill near trees where lemurs gather to rest, Dollar suspects that fossa often strike sleeping lemurs, or ones that are just waking up from afternoon naps. But most of the time stealth is unnecessary.
“The fossa is capable of explosive speed,’’ Dollar says. The attack, he adds, is straightforward in the extreme: “Wham! Face first, head bite, then front claws slashing the stomach and eviscerating. Puncturing the cranium and crushing the jawline in one bite. Front claws opening the body cavity.’’ Given the chance, Dollar says, a fossa will “eat anything with a heartbeat: lemurs, reptiles, chickens, fish, wild pigs.”
With its savage bite and mysterious nature, the fossa has long terrorized the Malagasy. But Dollar tells them the animal is their ally: it kills wild pigs and rats that eat local manioc and rice crops. “If you don’t work with the local community,” he says, “you’re going to know an awful lot about an extinct animal by the end of your career.’’
That so peaceful a place should depend on such a killer is one of nature’s great ironies. For decades, naturalists on the island have conveniently ignored such butchery. “Of Madagascar I can announce to naturalists that this is truly their promised land,” French explorer Joseph-Philibert Commerson wrote in 1771. “Here Nature seems to have created a special sanctuary whither she seems to have withdrawn to experiment with designs different from any she has created elsewhere.” The island has no truly venomous snakes or big cats, no bears or wolves or man-eating reptiles. Yet even paradise needs a killer or two. Predators keep prey populations in check, which saves plants from being overgrazed. By acting as the lemur’s worst nightmare, the fossa helps maintain the island’s blissful natural balance.
But for how long? Since humans first arrived here 1,500 years ago, 17 species of lemur have died out, as well as multitudes of other species. What remains clings to a mere 10 percent of the island’s original undisturbed wilderness. Flying over Madagascar or driving though it, the pitiful state of the environment is relentlessly apparent: mile after mile of scraggly crops where forests used to stand, eroded hillsides where natural wonders once lived. The island looks like a victim of war: naked, scarred, battered, burned.
What’s left may be the single most precious, most species-rich area in the world. Eighty-three percent of Madagascar’s wildlife is unique, including 8,000 of its 10,000 plant species and two-thirds of the planet’s chameleon species. Still, if the island’s health depends on the fossa’s brutal care, then that is a precarious balance indeed. Although the World Conservation Union long listed the fossa as vulnerable, it has recently changed its status to endangered. Dollar guesses that there may be fewer than 2,000 of the animals on the island. But how varied is their physiology and behavior? How stable are their populations? Answering those questions may take a lifetime.
In the meantime, Dollar’s trapping and tracking work, helped along by volunteers from the Earthwatch Institute, has shown that fossa density in Ampijoroa is surprisingly low. In three weeks in 1998, in the neighboring forest of Tsimaloto, he caught three fossa in live traps and documented another three with motion-sensitive cameras. Given the similar terrain and lemur life here, he expected to trap 10 to 20 in three months. By project’s end, he would catch only two.
Dollar’s conclusion is sobering: Although fossa live in every kind of forest on the island—lowland and montane rain forest, dry deciduous forest, and spiny desert—they may not always be able to put down roots. “As soon as there’s any habitat disturbance, fossa fall out,’’ he says.
In Ampijoroa, lemur researchers aren’t the only ones combing the forest. Local honey cutters chop down whole trees to collect nectar-filled hives; loggers search for rare woods; poachers kill rare animals. One day, I saw a local park guardian collecting firewood in the forest, against park rules. On another day, a poacher appeared from the forest while we were tracking. “I don’t have anything,” he protested, hurrying off. But we soon discovered his six-foot blowpipe stashed under some brush. When Dollar pressed his mouth to one end and exhaled, a rusty six-inch dart fell to the ground with some cotton wadding. The dart had lemur fur on it.
Today, on our last day in camp, it seems as if our own hunting will be less well rewarded than the poacher’s. Though we glimpsed the fossa this morning, we weren’t able to catch it. Still, Dollar isn’t ready to give up. While the rest of us read books and write letters in base camp as we wait for a rusted minivan to take us to the airport, Dollar hikes back up the trail one last time to check the traps. Within minutes, the camp is roused by cries of “Fossa! Fossa!” over the two-way radio. A little later, Dollar strides into the clearing carrying Tasha’s limp, sedated form.
Up close, the fossa is even more spectacular than she had seemed in the forest that morning. As sinewy as a mountain lion and as slick as root-beer taffy, she has enormous paws and a long tail that dangles below Dollar’s cradling arms. Her underbelly bears a creamy blaze, and even though she has just killed and eaten an entire chicken—including the comb, feathers, and toes—she is spotlessly clean.
From all around the camp, staff members and volunteers, villagers and their children, converge on the veranda, packing themselves around the battered table where Dollar has laid his prize. He removes the thick red, white, and blue leather collar, number 448808, and puts the channel out of service. Then he and a veterinary volunteer measure everything measurable.
This terror of the forest weighs only 14 3/10 pounds, and her other measurements, though typical for a fossa, seem equally tame. Her canines are 6/10 inch. Her neck circumference is 9 3/10 inches. Chest circumference: 13 inches. Full body, no tail: 28 inches. Full body with tail: 56 inches. Heart rate: 140 beats per minute.
Once the blood samples have been taken and the study is complete, the circus begins. Everyone wants to pose with the fossa, and so she is passed from hand to hand, photographed by one instant camera after another. It is an unseemly, discomforting scene, but I can’t help joining in. As the forests of Madagascar and other Edens fall, and as species after species tumbles toward extinction, we all yearn to hold onto the survivors a moment longer—to touch something wild and mysterious before it disappears. And yet even as we hold the fossa in our arms, we know its true nature has eluded us. It is floating through the trees even now: a rumor, a shadow, A story to tell children. A shape as ephemeral as smoke.