When billionaire Richard Branson announced the construction of a luxury eco-resort in the British Virgin Islands, it sounded like a great idea. But his latest plan to populate one of those islands, Mosquito Island, with endangered lemurs, sounds more like a crazy-rich-man idea.
There are about 100 species of lemurs, a type of small primate native to the island of Madagascar. Most are classified as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered and are threatened by deforestation, hunting and the exotic pet trade. Those threats have only increased during the political unrest of the last two years.
But will importing lemurs to Mosquito Island help those species? Or could there be ecological heartbreak in store?
Branson will start by bringing 30 ring-tailed lemurs to the island from zoos in Canada, South Africa and Sweden in a few weeks. They'll be kept in cages to acclimatize before being released into the forest. They'll be inoculated against diseases, and veterinarians will be available to treat sick lemurs. Releases of red-ruffed lemurs and sifakas may follow, according to reports.
When I asked Erik Patel, who studies silky safakas, about the plans, he said that the ring-tailed lemurs at least stand a chance of surviving their introduction to the island. "They are quite flexible," he says. But, "it would certainly be a grave mistake to bring sifakas there, since sifakas are known to be amongst the most sensitive lemurs, are difficult to rear in captivity, and seldom survive reintroductions."
And then there's the question of what will happen to all the plants and creatures that already live on that island. Conservation plans rarely begin with (or even include) the introduction of a non-native species. And though lemurs surely are adorable, they "could damage native flora and fauna on the island, particularly reptiles such as the stout iguana, turnip-tailed gecko, and dwarf gecko, as well as birds' eggs," Patel says.
Even if the introduction of lemurs to Mosquito Island is ultimately successful and does no harm to the local ecology, it's difficult to see how this will help the lemurs of Madagascar. Branson has said that his lemurs might eventually be reintroduced to their homeland, but there are already established projects that do so.
Branson has a good reputation for supporting the environment, pledging $3 billion towards biofuel research, for example, sponsoring a prize for climate change research, and even funding sifaka conservation efforts in Madagascar. "I think he does care about these animals, and basically wants to help them," Patel says. "However, in this case, the risks may outweigh the benefits. I hope we can continue to channel his energy and sincere goodwill into further conservation projects in Madagascar itself, which may be a bargain compared to the high cost of purchasing and transporting all these lemurs to Mosquito Island."