National Geographic News

Susan Daugherty

for National Geographic

Published August 14, 2014

EDITOR’S NOTE: 2014 National Geographic Emerging Explorer Christopher Golden is an ecologist and epidemiologist who studies the effects of global environmental trends on human health. Based at Harvard University's Center for Health and the Global Environment, he has conducted field research in Madagascar since 1999 and is director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Health and Ecosystems: Analysis of Linkages (HEAL) program. National Geographic's Emerging Explorers honors tomorrow's visionaries—those making discoveries, making a difference, and inspiring people to care about the planet.

What does an endangered lemur have to do with a malnourished child in Madagascar? How does deforestation in Indonesia affect a Singapore businessman's cardiopulmonary system? Why could a marine conservation area improve a woman's health oceans away?

Christopher Golden researches and quantifies the often surprising connections between environmental trends and human health. "My goal is to use empirical data and predictive models to quantify how problems like wildlife depletion or climate change affect the well-being of people, and then link those results to actionable policies."

Epidemiologists are medical detectives—investigating disease patterns in human populations. Using fieldwork, research, and data analysis, they identify what triggers disease, why it spreads, what can stop it, and whom it puts at risk. All around the world, public health policy and prevention efforts depend on these findings. Golden's special niche connects epidemiology with ecology—exploring how environmental trends affect our health, and how the right interventions can solve problems for both sick people and sick ecosystems.

"The health of our planet can have powerful effects on the health of people. Understanding that complex relationship has never been more critical," Golden says.

His research demonstrates how changes in the environment can have a tangible impact on human health—showing how choices such as whether to buy tuna or steak, when to clear trees to plant crops, and where to drop fishing nets could have surprising health consequences for everyone from Madagascar's bush hunters to New Yorkers sitting down to a five-star meal.

It all began when he was nine years old and wrote a school report about ring-tailed lemurs. "I became obsessed with the species and with going to Madagascar after browsing through the Encyclopedia of Animals and reading the 1988 National Geographic issue on the 'Wilds of Madagascar.'"

At age 16 his dream came true with a summer research project in Madagascar led by National Geographic Emerging Explorer Luke Dollar. Since then, he has spent several months each year embedded in the country, becoming fluent in Malagasy dialects, and exploring the complex relationship between ecology, human health, and conservation.

A photo of Christopher Golden working with a local man from Amdagascar learning how to cook tenrec.
A local man shows Emerging Explorer Christopher Golden how to cook tenrec, a small mammal that is a popular meat source in Madagascar.
Photograph by Jon Betz, National Geographic

Web of Life

"My research evolved organically by living in remote forests with people who truly rely on natural resources," Golden says.

His first ever studies on hunting in Madagascar revealed a troubling web of interrelated problems. Hunters were depleting wildlife at an unsustainable rate. Yet bushmeat provided a crucial nutritional resource for local people. Protecting wildlife through conservation would also shrink human food supplies because most hunting in Madagascar is illegal. And while animals are an important food source, killing and eating wildlife puts people at greater risk of contracting infectious diseases that animals transmit.

"Hunters didn't set out to destroy their environment or drive species to extinction; they were trying to feed their families," Golden says. His data, proving that both people and wildlife were in peril, inspired efforts to replace bushmeat hunting with chicken husbandry. "This could be a strong win-win conservation solution for Madagascar since our findings show that people prefer the taste of chicken over any form of wildlife, and none of their many dietary taboos forbid consuming it."

In the past, Newcastle disease has decimated chicken flocks in Madagascar's northeastern region. "We're working to bring a live vaccine for the disease to this area based on research that indicates people are willing to pay more than it will cost to import and distribute it. Healthier, more productive chickens could prevent many forms of malnutrition since the meat delivers a critical concentration of micronutrients."

Locals also eagerly anticipate an ethno-medicine "recipe" book that Golden's team will soon distribute to dozens of villages. "Hospitals are distant and expensive, so indigenous plants are the primary defense against illness for the vast majority of these people," he says. "Our study identified about 250 plant species being used to treat more than 80 ailments. This book will preserve vital local knowledge through illustrations and instructions on how to find and use each plant."

A photo of Emerging Explorer Christopher Golden taking blood samples to measure nutritional status in Madagascar.
Christopher Golden and a colleague take blood samples to measure nutritional status in Madagascar.
Photograph by Jon Betz, National Geographic

Strength and Healing

Golden says, "Looking back, I know I was drawn here by a sense of adventure." Upon arriving in Madagascar, he found plenty of it. "It takes small planes, miles of muddy roads, 30 river crossings, and hours to days of hiking just to reach my field sites. But what's kept me here is the incredible environmental wisdom the Malagasy people possess about every aspect of their natural world. I've learned more from them than I did during my entire college and Ph.D. education."

Golden has also tried to bring this knowledge to Malagasy students and scientists. In 2004, he created a local research organization called MAHERY (Madagascar Health and Environmental Research), a word that locally means "strength." Through this organization, he has trained more than 20 Malagasy university students from various fields including anthropology, animal biology, sociology, veterinary medicine, and economics.

Golden's efforts are now expanding far beyond Madagascar's forests in his new role as director of the HEAL (Health and Ecosystems: Analysis of Linkages) program, a consortium of 25 institutions led by the Wildlife Conservation Society. Projects span the globe, but all harness data to better understand how environmental changes affect human health and how empirical findings can guide problem solving.

One HEAL project will take many of Golden's terrestrial techniques to the oceans. "We're helping quantify how global fishery collapse relates to rising worldwide malnutrition and other specific health outcomes. Our predictive models will link ocean acidification, pollution, warming, and coral bleaching to food insecurity. Conversely, we'll measure how protecting marine areas can increase productivity of fish and boost food supplies."

He adds, "Research can have tremendous influence on setting priorities, creating policies, and maximizing conservation efforts. It's such a powerful tool."

 

Picture of explorers
Profiles of the 13 other National Geographic emerging explorers will follow over the next few weeks.
42 comments
Sirajul Islam
Sirajul Islam

Great presentation! The news is informative, original and relevant. Thanks to Mr. Christopher Golden for his original research. Thanks also to natGeo and Susan Daugherty for the story.

Yvonne Eichler
Yvonne Eichler

As a health care provider I am very interested in the future work of Chris Golden. We affect our environment and our environment affects us whether we live in the bush of Madagascar or the middle of the Bronx. Our health is intricately connected to our environment. Perhaps this research in the remote regions of Madagascar can teach us all how to live in our changing world in a more sustainable manner.

Shah Photoart
Shah Photoart

Maybe we are closer than you think, check out the Beluga Whale's interaction with the children on my page. Man's games with wild Dolphins, or the Gorilla with a vocabulary of 200 words via sign language

jeffrey guy
jeffrey guy

Christopher Golden you are an inspiration, your work and life in a remote and exotic Madagascar is phenomenal.Thank you for understanding how important original human habitation is.The ability of nature to sustain human life.There will be a time on earth, when the balance of over population and the pressure it places on resource renewal collapse systems.Our marine ecosystem,imperiled by atmospheric accumulation of co2 mixing,and acidifying sea water,the nitrification from agriculture and the man made gases driving our temps up and adding more pressure on our oceans.Earth is no more and no less than a huge petri dish,we better start cleaning up as we go along.When we snuff out the eternal flame of life,who will relight it?

Fornik Tsai
Fornik Tsai

Environment has changed human life and culture.

ELIZABETH BUTLER
ELIZABETH BUTLER

There were three questions at the beginning of the article in bold print. I was curious about the answer to those questions. They were not touched on whatsoever in the article. What is the point of the article, except that these people will be better off when they can raise and consume chickens? That was not presented as the topic of the article. I pray they will get healthy chickens soon.

Clicksorry FBcerrado
Clicksorry FBcerrado

❤️ Thnks 4 all! I want to be there with all of you. Please! I love it!

D. Frank
D. Frank

I WISH EVERYONE WAS LIKE YOU. IT'S NOT IMPOSSIBLE. PEOPLE LIKE AIR CONDITIONER, MICROWAVE... THEY DON'T WANT TO HAVE A SIMPLE BUSY LIFE. THEY PREFER TO SIT DOWN AND LOOK AT THE COMPUTER, LIKE ME. THANKS GOLDEN HEART.

D. Frank
D. Frank

THINGS LIKE THAT MAKE ME FEEL MORE HOPEFUL. MAYBE IT'S NOT TOO LATE. THANK YOU AND GOOD LUCK GOLDEN HEART. 

Cecil Swing
Cecil Swing

The perspectives expressed in the video are the same ones that most reasonable conservationists share. In relation to subsistence cultures, we fully understand that there must simply be a balance, the same one that has existed for millennia. In other settings, dependence on animal-derived products from the wild is just not sustainable. Having noticed that a few thousand years ago, animal husbandry was invented. Those ancestral peoples who still live in the bush certainly have a right to exploit wildlife for their own consumption; those people who live in cities have no right whatsoever to any longer consume products from the forests of the world.

In Ecuador, anyone who cares about nature enough to say so is labelled a "childish environmentalist" ("ambientalista infantil") by President Rafael Correa, implying that our drive to protect the only world we have is based purely on emotion. In response, we say that our passion has now produced scientifically substantiated arguments that are irrefutable. Saving some portion of nature does not always translate into lost economic opportunities. Creativity on the part of leaders, combined with a willingness to listen to those most informed (scientists), is the only limit to reaching a balance that future generations will appreciate.

Shah Photoart
Shah Photoart

Puts one in mind of the movie Avatar, where the inhabitants and the environment are linked as one

Shah Photoart
Shah Photoart

Puts one in mind of the movie Avatar, where the inhabitants and the environment are linked as one

Ros Lindley
Ros Lindley

A very empathetic and compelling young man.  To also learn the language and dialects - you have my highest esteem.  Keep up the excellent work of uniting man, environment and sensitivity. xx Ros from Irene in SA. 

Glennw Woods
Glennw Woods

we need more good people like you on this planet thanks for your efforts

Diana M.
Diana M.

I've always been fascinated with Madagascar, too.  It's unique environment is found nowhere else in the world!  What a treat it would be to work there.  Good luck with your work.

TAMMY ELLIS
TAMMY ELLIS

NO!  THIS VIDEO IS THE WRONG MESSAGE, AND I HOPE BIG BUSINESS RUNS

THEM OUT AND THEY BECOME CIVILIZED JUST LIKE US. NO MORE EATING SMALL ANIMALS, HA HA.

TAMMY ELLIS
TAMMY ELLIS

YOU DO NOT EAT SMALL ANIMALS, YOU EAT FISH ON A ISLAND, THERE IS TOO

MANY PEOPLE AND ANIMALS NEED TO EAT, ALSO. WHERE DO YOU THINK

EBOLA CAME FROM, DON'T YOU KNOW, YOU SHOULD! EBOLA CAME FROM

MONKEYS AND THEY HAD A PROBLEM IN THE 199O'S ABOUT IT. PEOPLE IN

AFRICA EATING MONKEYS, JUST LIKE IN INDOSENISA THEY KILL MONKEYS

JUST TO FEED TO THE PIRAHNA TO CATCH THEM, PATHETIC!

cecil james
cecil james

thank you for bringing this feature for our viewing there is so many beautiful people and creatures ,that are not seen every day god created human life ad the creatures why cant we take care of human life and the creatures god made >

Patsie Smith
Patsie Smith

That's so great to have such an amazing and conscious young man on your team. That's why I subscribe and like reading Nat Geo, its made up of people who are in touch. So so many aware and conscious people know that we're not just a part of our Earth but we are the Earth. And so many are doing their bits already. Dr Suzuki's been working tirelessly for decades trying to get that through to people. Hopefully young ones like Christopher Golden and conscious companies like Nat geo will continue to push that work into the faces of governments, corporations and individuals who still choose to live in a self-bubble of ignorance. Awesome work, fine young man, there's hope still for our world :)

Sally Miller
Sally Miller

Thank you for the link. It was very interesting.

So is Nat Geog/  or Christopher Golden doing a presentation at some locations around the country that one could find out about?


Enid Sequeira
Enid Sequeira

Thanks cristopher , that is good . It is important and insteresting documental I hope the mentality'speople change one day .

Mark Gillono-Vegan
Mark Gillono-Vegan

what needs to occur is to stop using sentient beings as resources and commodities.  human society is never going to prosper and thrive until we stop the violence and exploitation of other species.  anyone truly interested in the environment, non-human animals and their own health needs to check out this book and the only viable solutions to these critical issues:  http://www.thisishopethebook.com/

bill wolfe
bill wolfe

I love this work - intellectually and as a human being. The integrative focus and methodology, with cultural awareness, is where it's at! 

DEE FELDMAN
DEE FELDMAN

YOU ARE DOING GREAT THINGS!!!! SO PROUD OF YOU!!!!!

Maddy S.
Maddy S.

Amazing work. I am in awe of you guys...Give me back some years and I know I would spend them with you!!!

Aileen Wetzstein
Aileen Wetzstein

You are doing fantastic work -- Everyone should be very proud of your achievements

joe ferreira ferreira
joe ferreira ferreira

Fantastic work ,yes right type of chicken (hardy ,ect) will work .Breed certain insects to feed ?   thanks ,keep up good work .

like to hear about your progress


 Joe  South Africa northcliff  15  joburg

karyn Rogers
karyn Rogers

I am so very happy about your work. I do believe that you are on the right path. Balancing the needs of the indigenous people as well as helping them explore ways in which to preserve their resources. I too have always been quite interested in Madagascar. I, however, went into social work. My son and nephew are both preparing to choose their path. They are both math and science geeks with a desire to impact others and a taste for adventure and hard work. Do you have any vehicle through which you describe how young people might prepare to participate in your work and/or similar work? 


I wish you the best.

Karyn Rogers

Dripping Springs, Texas

Ronald Bushell
Ronald Bushell

You are right that there is a trade-off between feeding local people and conservation.

I think you have the correct balance in this case. Conservation is the primary aim, but the needs (not desires) of the people are paramount.

Good luck with your work. 


Ron, Watford, UK.

Tan Wee
Tan Wee

I read with interest on this article. I would like to keep in touch with your work. Please let me how I can do so to share with my 15 year old daughter. I noticed your creativity also on using words for abbreviation such as HEAL and MAHERY.Thank you.

Jane Hendricks
Jane Hendricks

I do see the very important connection between the health of the planet and people. Really important here. Thank you Christopher for this article and your research, Looking at how can we restore the planet is so important - it is the only one we have. I read a book that really spoke to me about the environment that I highly recommend. Check it out: www.greatwavesofchange.org




Gilbert Dupuis
Gilbert Dupuis

@Cecil Swing Being too emotional or passionate make you stop being a scientist who need  mainly a good thinking process instead of making propaganda. Think about it and take a little draw back.

Gilbert Dupuis
Gilbert Dupuis

@Shah Photoart Try to do it on Earth! Not possible to implement this idea except in your dream. There are so many things we can do to help people. But we have to stay our 2 feet on the ground. Start at our level and do more than dreaming.

Chris Landau
Chris Landau

@Mark Gillono-Vegan

I agree. We do not need meat for a healthy lifestyle. Fruit, nuts, vegetables are sufficient. We will never evolve with an outdated primitive outlook of eating meat to get protein.If I can transition to a vegetarian (only cheese and milk still consumed-working on that) then anybody can. It is simply a choice.

SAVERIA VOLTA
SAVERIA VOLTA

@Jane Hendricks you're right! too many times humans forget they are part of the environment. Well done Christopher! I really appreciate your work

Lenard Milich
Lenard Milich

@Gilbert Dupuis  That kind of dispassion may have it's place, but it's also exactly why we need to fear bioweapons.  "It's science, what people do with it is not up to me/us" has been a refrain that has led us down the wrong path on multiple occasions.

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