They’re not Martians, but the lemurs that Sir Richard Branson plans to import to the Caribbean may be as out of place in their new home as ET was in a California suburb.
Branson, founder of Virgin Group (Virgin Records, Virgin Atlantic Airways, etc.), is Number 5 on the list of richest Britons. He lives variously in London, Oxford (England, UK) and Campden Hill (also in England), owns numerous properties and companies around the world, and received the title “Sir” in 2000 because Elizabeth II, Queen of England, liked his entrepreneurial spirit.
He is not stupid; no one who makes it to the top by bootstraps alone ever is. That requires inherited wealth. But the news that Branson plans to import lemurs to his island in the Caribbean seems a grand gesture of environmental compassion that may conceal a ticking time bomb. At least, that is how some of species conservationists see it.
Branson’s islands are Necker and Moskito. The first will accommodate luxury housing, including one house for Branson himself. The other is dedicated to very exclusive eco-tourism, with the cost of a one-night stay at $2,000 (£1,200). Eventually Moskito may also be used to house a colony of lemurs taken from their native habitat. At least, that is Branson’s stated intention.
Lemurs, native to the African island of Madagascar, are that island’s answer to the distribution of primates (monkeys) elsewhere. Madagascar, a unique niche in the ecological record similar to Australia, is their only known habitat, and many of the 60 subspecies of lemur are in danger because of government upheaval, extensive deforestation as a result of agricultural slash-and-burn, selective logging (for rare and expensive rosewood, for example) and firewood collection by the Malagasy people themselves.
Both islands, as Branson has already pointed out, provide almost ideal lemur habitat, from their tropical climate to their rainforest-like overgrowth. Branson presumably believes that tourism on his Caribbean islands will help support this habitat. Branson also feels that the importation will protect the species as a whole, since it is clear that the primate is becoming endangered in its native habitat (in Madagascar). His eventual aim is to bring more than a dozen species to his island.
Wildlife conservationists remain unconvinced that this form of species protection is a good idea. In their minds, this experiment – like all human tinkering with the biosphere – may prove to be as disastrous as the failed gypsy moth exercise here in the United States, where, in the late 1860s, an immigrant French scientist named E. Leopold Trouvelot introduced the gypsy moth near Boston (Massachusetts), hoping it would crossbreed with the less hardy (and reputedly lazier) silkworm moth.
Today, gypsy moth larvae have defoliated more than 75 million acres from the Atlantic Coast to North Carolina, across into Iowa and from there north to Wisconsin and Canada.
As the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) notes:
"The damage done by harmful introductions to natural systems far outweighs the benefit derived from them.”
Fortunately, Branson has proved smart enough to see the danger inherent in his proposal. For now, in response to environmentalists’ concerns, the lemurs will be held in large enclosures (on the island) until researchers can investigate the impact their release will have on fragile island populations like the rare dwarf gecko.
For other great stories on the environment and climate change , check out Celsias: