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.