Richard Branson is an Idiot


Source: Wikipedia

It turns out that Richard Branson has a new idea; to save the ring-tailed lemur (Lemur catta) by importing them to his private British Virgin Island.  As the article points out Branson spent millions of pounds and years of effort to turn the island into “the most ecologically friendly island in the world”.  But it appears Mr Branson has decided to forgo conservation science and rewrite it in a more PR friendly way.  In come the lemurs despite the cautions of his own ecological assessment because he wants “…to create a second island habitat and the conditions on Moskito are perfect.”  Perhaps Branson has a bizarro world dictionary where the definition of the word perfect is “something completely dissimilar from the original”.

OK sure, at first the idea sounds like a fine one – the lemurs are endangered, why not try to give them a second wild refuge?  Well, Dr James Lazell of the Conservation Agency has had 31 years experience in the Virgin Islands and has pointed out that “Lemurs are agile, dexterous, aggressive, omnivorous animals that could have a detrimental effect on these simple island ecologies. They eat absolutely everything – lizards, fruit, roots, insects, birds’ eggs.”  Oh but don’t worry, nothing bad can happen when you introduce primates to an island (introduced primates devastate Florida Key).  Branson knows that the lemurs will only “take the odd gecko” (like the rare endemic dwarf-gecko Sphaerodactylus parthenopion), not to mention they probably won’t spread to other islands since they “hate swimming” (ring tailed lemur swimming).

So why then the ring-tailed?  Not because it is the most endangered (there are lots of other more endangered lemurs), but because it is the most iconic.  That is what really drives me up the wall about this ridiculous idea.  Not only is he naively introducing a possibly invasive species into a sensitive island habitat – but because he is spreading a false message of conservation.  Like a slow child Branson has rushed to the ring-tailed to save it while completely missing the entire idea behind conservation.  The ring-tailed is a flagship species, one that draws attention to the devastation that is occurring in Madagascar.  One cute cuddly animal to represent the staggeringly unique and diverse habitats of its homeland.  But not if Richard Branson has anything to say about it.  Why bother protect Madagascar when you can swoop in and create a new home for a primate everyone loves?  Phew, crisis averted.  Richard fiddles while Madagascar burns.

I suspect this freakish island zoo is simply masquerading as conservation and the real incentive behind it is commercial.  Over the next few years there will be a handful of “luxury, carbon-neutral homes built on the island”.  A pretty brilliant scheme to incentivize the purchase of homes that undoubtedly will cost tens of millions of dollars each – and you can pretend to feel good about protecting the world while you do it.  After all the Virgin Islands lack any charismatic wildlife; nature sure does a terrible job of creating a billionaires wonderland.  What comes next to the island?

Maybe… just maybe… Branson has Dr. Moreau moving in first.

8 comments to Richard Branson is an Idiot

  • Gunnar

    I have heard similar ideas uttered as potentially good conservation efforts by professional primatologists, in full seriousness. Do you think there is a (negative) correlation between understanding of the environment and the charisma of one’s study organisms?

    • Not at all. There are lots of fantastic scientists who work on very charismatic species. The only downside is you get people who know nothing about them messing things up (like butterflies!). I think Branson is misguided here – he is going against the scientific advice in this particular instance. It just rings more of media stunt than honest conservation effort (they are even neutering all of the lemurs!)

      Personally I don’t see the point of conserving a species if the native habitat is gone. If we can’t restore the habitat in the first place then why screw up another habitat just to protect the first species? Thats what zoos are for…

  • Seriously? How is there any conservation value if they will all be neutered? Sounds like he just wants his own private lemur island. And I thought John Varty was ridiculous for trying to establish a bengal tiger population in South Africa. At least that plan is just likely to fail and be a waste of money rather than possibly introduce a species that would cause drastic ecological problems… Sigh

  • You’re dealing with someone who operates inside a powerful reality-distortion field. This is a man who consumed vast amounts of energy and resources to carve a mansion into an island ecosystem, which he flies his private jet to visit, all while calling it “ecologically friendly.” Clearly, science and logic do not apply to Sir Richard.

  • LemurLover

    It’s not so much the idea that is bad, but the how of it (but no one seems definitely sure of what his actual plans are, and in truth, they probably morph on a daily basis at this “pre-rendezvous” point). I think his initial idea was that he was going to release 3 species of lemurs: ringtails (which are tough, and generally hardy, and will eat pretty much anything, they don’t get sick as easily as other species); red-ruffed lemurs (finicky, and have done so-so in captivity, and in some places they have actually died prematurely; and sifakas (which are extremely hard to manage in captivity, they are fragile and die easily in captivity — sifakas are definitely a terrible idea). His idea was just to release them on the islands and let them have free reign of the islands. That’s all well and good for them (or not, depending), but what about the endemic biota? There are several species of endangered lizards and geckos on the island, and the ringtails will eat those up, for sure. True, lots of people have lemurs as pets (now that’s a really terrible idea, for many reasons), and in some ways this is no different than that.

    But we are talking about letting a whole bunch of these “pets” run free all over one or two islands. True, lemurs cannot swim (the photos of a ringtail swimming show him right next to land) so they won’t be going over to other islands; that’s almost certainly not an issue. But Branson has a responsibility to take extremely good care of these animals, especially if they are left to run free all over the island (which everyone who knows these animals thinks is a very bad plan.) They need to have a crew of vets on site 24/7 to monitor the animals and make sure they are well cared for, not sick, getting enough to eat, etc. Maybe even have a research team of people who are working on PhDs in primatology to follow the groups of lemurs and report on them. If poorly executed, Branson’s plan could doom many of the lemurs to deaths that could have been prevented. There is no data to show whether or not there are new pathogens that they will be exposed to that will be harmful for them — or the possibiity they may bring other pathogens into the islands. If Branson is dead-set on the plan, the best way would be to build large enclosures for the animals, and provide adequate (and costly vet care), and make all the colony or colonies are well-monitored.

    Every single person I’ve spoken to (in a well-connected network of lemur specialists & conservationists) has said, in effect, “why on earth doesn’t he use his billions to help out poor old Madagascar so that the lemurs can stay there?” That’s a very good question. Perhaps he should do some of both — provide for some lemurs on this island AND help the reserves in Madagascar where the lemurs are under fire. There are lots of ways he could do this, and Madagascar definitely needs the help.

    I hadn’t heard that they are neutering the lemurs in question … that doesn’t make any sense to me, as it seems part of the point of this would be to have a breeding, sustainable colony. On the other hand, maybe he only wants to neuter the first batch, and so how “the experiment” works out with hardier adults (no infants.)

  • Harry Wong

    Dear Moth,

    Could you disagree with someone and not call him an idiot? No doubt Richard has his commercial reasons for being philantrophical but you really dont need to drag yourself into the mud for doubting his sincerity? Why dont you save the lemurs instead? And then not choose to spend your pocket money for global advertising in a hypocritical way?

    Thank you for reading this since your time is so precious.


    • Of course, I can respectfully disagree with you. You might be correct, I could be wrong in doubting his sincerity. And if anything that makes him less of an idiot for knowing how to spin the PR on his island zoo of neutered lemurs. But if he is sincere, I suggest that he sticks to the industry he better understands.

  • Susan Hunter

    And that would be commercial space travel from a poor county in New Mexico.