Branson gets flak for lemur relocation plan

2011-04-23 09:49

Miami – British billionaire businessman and adventurer Sir Richard Branson has plans to fly commercial passengers into space, but his terrestrial scheme to relocate endangered Madagascar lemurs on a Caribbean island he owns is getting flak from some conservation experts.

The Virgin Group founder, who has combined a meteoric business career with round the world balloon flights and philanthropic initiatives, has announced he will resettle lemurs collected from zoos on 48-hectare Moskito Island, part of the British Virgin Islands archipelago.

He wants to create a new island sanctuary for lemurs, primates native to the Madagascar and Comoro islands off Africa which are threatened by the rapid destruction of their natural habitat due to unchecked farming, hunting, mining and logging.

The bright-eyed furry-faced creatures are favourites with children at zoos and figured, as animated recreations, in the movie Madagascar.

British Virgin Islands officials have approved the Branson plan, but some conservation experts say that, while apparently well-intentioned, it could be an ecological disaster.

“I do think it’s a bad idea ... we have experience over and over and over again that when you transplant organisms from one part of the Earth to another part of the Earth the results are usually bad,” Anne Yoder, a lemur expert and director of the Duke Lemur Center in North Carolina, said yesterday.

She said that Branson, instead of trying to set up a new island home for the lemurs on Moskito, would do better to donate resources to trying to protect and preserve their natural but severely endangered habitat on Madagascar.

She said she understood that Branson, like conservationists around the world, was probably feeling “desperation” to try to help the endangered lemurs, but she believed his resettlement plan was not the answer.

“There’s so much good that could be done and this is not it,” she said.

Virgin rainforest
Branson has defended his lemur conservation idea.

He says Moskito’s rainforest environment, uninhabited by humans, is ideal for the shy lemurs, and has told reporters he has been consulting South African primate experts. Vets would help with the animals’ acclimatisation in their new home.

Yoder said she doubted the Caribbean habitat could sustain the lemurs and the plan risked harming local flora and fauna.

“Either way, it’s a disaster, because if the lemurs do supremely well, they’re going to outcompete the native biota (plant and animal life),” she said. “If the lemurs are introduced and can’t survive that’s a disaster, so it’s just hard to see a good solution here,” she added.

Lemurs mostly eat leaves and fruits, and sometimes insects, and Yoder said the more than 230 examples of 19 different species at her centre in North Carolina required a high level of care and attention.

“Every lemur is checked every day ... they all have very specialised diets,” she said, adding that the centre employed two full-time veterinarians and a staff of 30 people.

“To see someone say ‘Oh, I’m just going to release them on this island’, we know that just doesn’t work,” Yoder said.

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