Sir Richard Branson, the British business titan behind the Virgin Group, has sparked controversy among conservationists and environmental groups over a plan to import lemurs to his private isles in the British Virgin Islands. Lemurs are native to Madagascar, where they are being threatened by deforestation and a government that turns a blind eye toward illegal logging. Branson claims the relocation will benefit the lemur population by presenting a new breeding habitat.
Via BBC News:
“Here on Moskito Island we’ve got a beautiful rainforest – we brought in experts from South Africa, and they say it would be an absolutely perfect place where lemurs can be protected and breed,” Sir Richard told BBC News.
Moskito (also spelled Mosquito) Island is one of two that Sir Richard owns in the British Virgin Islands. Several luxury houses, including one for the boss of the Virgin business empire himself, are being built on it. His other island is Necker, home to an eco-tourism resort where a stay is priced at around $2,000 (£1,200) per day.
Ring-tailed lemurs and red-ruffed lemurs are two of the species Branson intends to relocate. Both are on the Red List of Threatened Species, and Branson hopes that lemurs bred on Moskito and Necker can one day be reintroduced to the wild in Madagascar. Branson’s plan has been approved by the British Virgin Islands government and the lemurs will be transported from zoos in South Africa, Sweden, and Canada. The first group of lemurs are scheduled to be moved at an unspecified date in the next few weeks.
But activists are concerned about the lemurs’ potential impact to native wildlife. Releasing a non-native species into the wild in a different continental region is unprecedented. Critics of Branson’s plan, including Dr. Christoph Schwitzer, a Primate Specialist with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Species Survival Commission, are concerned that the lemurs will damage the two islands’ ecosystem. They warn that environmental damage like that caused by the introduction of rabbits and cane toads to Australia is one grim, but possible outcome of the lemur relocation.
Branson’s idea that the lemur population born on his islands could eventually return to Madagascar is certainly admirable, but there are captive breeding programs working toward this same goal that don’t pose a danger to other wildlife.
According to the IUCN, “the damage done by harmful introductions to natural systems far outweighs the benefit derived from them.”
Dr. Simon Stuart, chair of the IUCN, suspects the project might violate the IUCN’s code for translocations. According to Dr. Schwitzer, the lemurs should be kept in close confinement on the islands:
Via BBC News:
“The project would only be acceptable if he intended to keep them in a controlled environment – that is, in some kind of fenced-in enclosure where they cannot become a problem to the native fauna and flora,” [Dr Schwitzer] said.
[H]e warned that there could be impacts on local wildlife.
While some species of lemur are faithful to a diet of fruit, others will grab whatever is around, including lizards and other small animals.
“There may be birds nesting, and if there are some of the lemurs would attempt to predate on their eggs – or there may be small invertebrates that they’d go for,” said Dr Schwitzer.
Necker and Moskito Island are home to reptiles such as the stout iguana, the turnip-tailed gecko and the dwarf gecko that local conservationists have identified as being of specific concern.
Branson asserts that if the lemurs begin to impact native plants or animals, efforts would be made to control them. Hopefully, he isn’t underestimating the lemurs’ tenacity. Introducing a non-native species is much easier than removing one, as wildlife experts have discovered in Australia. Branson’s lemur relocation plan should be halted until the IUCN and other experts can further assess the situation.
Photo credit: JD Lafontaine