Branson’s plan to save lemurs is turning heads.
If you build Madagascar’s lemurs a new home, will they come? And can you trust them not to trash the place?
Sir Richard Branson, private moon shot funder, Virgin Group kingpin, kooky billionaire du jour, has been turning heads with his announcement that he plans to import 30 ring-tailed lemurs from zoos to one of his privately owned islands in the British Virgin Islands. The idea is to give endangered or threatened species a new place to live and breed—Madagascar’s civil war has meant a resurgence in lemur habitat loss, and ring-taileds are listed as “near threatened”—but biologists and conservationists are pointing out how Branson could be doing the island’s native ecosystem a serious disservice. “It’s pretty weird,” Simon Stuart, chair of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Species Survival Commission, told the BBC. “What else lives on the island, and how might they be affected?”
On the one hand, it’s rather charming that Branson has such a hands-on approach to problems of conservation (he’s also founded the Virgin Green Fund to tackle next-generation fuel development), which are often depressingly intractable. But the red tape that generally applies in such situations is there for a reason. Introducing invasive species, endangered or not, doesn’t have the best track record. The poster child is European rabbits in Australia, where they have wreaked havoc on native plants and animals, but there are many, many other cautionary tales. Moskito Island, Branson’s proposed lemur paradise, is home to several species that lemurs might decimate, including dwarf geckos, and many scientists have pointed out that isolated islands tend to have very simple ecosystems and adding a large omnivore like a lemur could turn things topsy-turvy. (Richard Black at the BBC does a great job describing situations where something similar has been tried.)
Interestingly, it turns out that there is already a ring-tailed lemur population in North America (via NYT Green blog): St. Catherine’s Island, off of Georgia, is a wildlife preserve whose lemurs were introduced 30 years ago and who don’t seem to have impacted the native ecology much. If the Moskito Island plan doesn’t work–Branson has said if the lemurs become a problem he’ll take steps to remedy it–maybe the lemurs can camp out there.