The sky’s the limit attitude may not save the lemur, conservationists warn Branson

Posted on April 19, 2011


Sir Richard Branson is used to making headlines. His maverick approach to business catapulted him into the big league and secured his status as one of the world’s most influential entrepreneurs. But his latest idea to help save the lemurs of Madagascar has sparked controversy.

The British tycoon admits it’s “a radical idea” but wants to import two species of lemur to his private isles in the British Virgin Islands to safeguard them. The ring-tailed lemur (Lemur catta) is a threatened species and red-ruffed lemur (Varecia rubra) is an endangered species. Both primates are indigenous to the island of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. Their habitat is rapidly being destroyed through deforestation and illegal logging has gone unchallenged due to political instability. Branson claims the relocation programme to Moskito Island and later on to Necker, will benefit the lemur population by presenting them with a new breeding habitat.

ring-tailed lemur (Lemur catta)

He said: “We have had a lemur project in Madagascar the past few years and seen that things are getting worse for them so we thought about finding a safe haven. We brought in experts from South Africa to Moskito island and they said it would be perfect.”

But conservationists warn that introducing a non native species into the wild in a different continental region is both unprecedented and potentially detrimental to the other native species.

We simply do not know enough to predict what changes will occur in the ecosystem long-term from this introduction. Branson’s good intention could ironically end up creating a new problem rather than solving one. There definitely needs to be a more measured approach taken here, rather than what currently looks like a knee-jerk reaction.

According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Species Survival Commission (IUCN) the project could contravene its code for translocations and “the damage done by harmful introductions to natural systems far outweighs the benefit derived from them.”

Sir Richard Branson

Among the critics of Branson’s plan, is Dr Christoph Schwitzer, a primate specialist with the IUCN’s  Species Survival Commission. He’s concerned that the lemurs will damage the two islands’ ecosystem. He is warning that the relocation of the lemurs could lead to environmental damage like that seen by the introduction of rabbits and cane toads to Australia.

He said: “The project would only be acceptable if he (Branson) 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.

“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.

The imported lemurs are expected to come from zoos in Canada, Sweden and South Africa, not Madagascar. Moskito Island is nearly 70 hectares and is home to a number of reptiles including the stout iguana, the turnip-tailed gecko and the dwarf gecko.

Penelope Bodry-Sanders, the founder of Lemur Conservation Foundation, a Florida-based group which has a sister reserve in Madagascar, told The Guardian: “It could be a brilliant or terrible idea but we just don’t know yet. We don’t know what pathogens the lemurs will bring to the Caribbean or what pathogens they will receive. It is great that Mr Branson cares, and he has a history of acting responsibly, but we need more information. The jury is out on this.”

But isn’t there a bigger picture here? Yes it’s great to see someone influential trying to make a positive difference, but surely the solution isn’t remote islands? Don’t we need to root out the problems threatening these animals, which are usually started by man in the first place! And what about the lemurs left in Madagascar? Do we forget about their plight because we can potentially breed them elsewhere? Conservation isn’t just about saving “flagship” species like the lemur, it’s about preserving the whole ecosystem they are indigenous to. These species act as ambassadors for that habitat, which has a wealth of biodiversity that needs protecting. Without them there, that ecosystem is vulnerable and likely to be destroyed.

Branson’s plan has been given the green light by the British Virgin Islands’ government, but some experts believe the project was approved too quickly and without adequately studying the potential consequences. The first group of lemurs (25 ringtailed) are due to be moved in the next few weeks. The red-ruffed lemur, and possibly another primate, the sifakas, could be next.

The founder of the Virgin group has acknowledged there are risks but said experts had advised they were minimal compared with the upside of “saving a species that was dying out”.

He added: “Lemurs eat mostly nuts and plants. If they eat the occasional gecko, well there are literally thousands and thousands of them.” Branson said if the local species were threatened by the introduction of the lemurs efforts would be made to protect them. Experts however say it is far easier to introduce non native species than it is to remove them.