Richard Branson and the Lemurs

27 May

A more modern story of natural history today.

A few months ago, Sir Richard Branson, a renowned entrepreneur and owner of various Virgin companies, announced that he wanted lemurs. Branson plans to introduce a small population of Ring-tailed Lemurs to a small privately owned island in the Caribbean, with Red-Ruffed Lemurs and other species to follow. The government of the British Virgin Islands has approved of his plan, however, activists and conservationists have not been so quick to praise this idea.

Ring-tailed Lemurs at the North Carolina Zoological Park

On the one hand, it is an admirable idea. The deforestation of Madagascar has risen dramatically in the past few years, shrinking the available natural habitat of these and other lemurs. Sanctuaries such as Branson’s Moskito Island may indeed prove to be crucial to conservation work. Furthermore, Branson is purchasing his animals from zoos or private collections, meaning that wild populations will not be touched.

However, as many conservationists have pointed out, Branson is a businessman, not a scientist. While many believe that the lemurs will have a minimal impact on the wildlife of the region, the exact figures are unknown. Three species of endemic reptiles could become easy prey for the lemurs. These reptiles are found nowhere else in the world and losing these populations would mean losing the species. Furthermore, wild bird populations could be affected as eggs are raided from nests. Conservationists have proposed a limited-introduction plan, whereby the animals are introduced in small manageable numbers and monitored constantly, but it is unclear whether this plan has been accepted.

Another possible problem is that Moskito Island is not totally isolated. The British Virgin Islands is a wide archipelago. There are fears that the lemurs may escape and move to other islands.

Personally, I find it admirable for a person to take conservation seriously and to put forth new ideas. And Richard Branson is certainly someone who has the funds, willpower, and spirit to contribute to the world-wide effort to save endangered species. However, the truth of the matter is that we can point to hundreds of invasive, destructive species around the globe that were also introduced with only the best possible goals in mind. Cane toads marched through Australia. The kudzu vine spread so virulently throughout the southern United States that it earned the moniker ‘The Vine that Ate the South’.

Improving the situation of a handful of lemurs is not worth risking the extinction of entire ecosystems. I do feel that Branson is legitimately trying to help. And outside perspectives and entrepreneurs can often revitalize a field of science. However in this case it would probably be best to leave this to the professionals. It is with this same zeal that Victorian naturalists hunted tigers and that European Starlings were brought to Central Park. This fervor is romantic and exciting, however, the days of the cowboy naturalist are gone, for better or worse.

Sources: The New York Times, The BBC,

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Posted by on May 27, 2011 in Modernity, Natural History


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