Branson retreats in row over lemurs plan for ‘eco-island’

Richard Branson’s bid to turn his island into a conservation zone for rare lemurs has run into trouble after conservationists objected, as David Harrison reports for The Telegraph.  

It sounded like a bold move to conserve a species threatened with extinction.

When Sir Richard Branson announced plans to transport lemurs from breeding zoos around the world and release them on a pristine Caribbean island, his experts said it would be a perfect way to protect the primates and help them to breed.

However, conservationists were quick to warn that the imported creatures, with their voracious appetites, could wipe out much of the native flora and fauna on the island of Moskito.

After the warnings were highlighted in The Sunday Telegraph, the Virgin tycoon – who paid £10 million for the island – has backed down and agreed to keep the lemurs in large enclosures until further research is carried out into the impact their release would have.

The rare dwarf gecko (sphaerodactylus parthenopion) is said to be at particular risk from the “aggressive, omnivorous” lemurs. The world’s smallest lizard, it is found only on Moskito and the neighbouring island of Virgin Gorda. Both are part of the British Virgin Islands, a British overseas territory with a population of only 22,000.

Lemurs live in the wild only on the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar, 8,000 miles away off the east coast of Africa, where their habitat is under threat and where at least 17 species have already become extinct.

The climbdown by Sir Richard will halt the release of the first consignment of about 30 ringtailed lemurs (lemur catta). The primates, due to be brought in from several zoos where they are bred, will remain in pens while conservationists carry out further surveys of geckos on the 120-acre hideaway which Sir Richard had pledged to turn into “the world’s most environmentally friendly island”.

The billionaire said: “Our aim is to save endangered species and I would hate to be responsible for potentially damaging another species.

“I will keep the lemurs enclosed whilst we get experts to conduct further surveys on geckos and particularly the dwarf geckos.

“If these studies indicate any real risk to these geckos, we will keep the lemurs enclosed.”

Sir Richard launched the scheme after experts told him that lemurs are “some of the most threatened primates on Earth” and urged him to provide them with another island habitat.

Experts from Africa told him that Moskito’s dense, tropical palm canopy was a “perfect” habitat for lemurs. “Since they dislike swimming, there was no danger of them leaving the island,” he said.

Most of the lemurs he plans to import in the future – the sifaka, black, and red ruffed species – are vegetarian and would not pose a significant threat to the local wildlife, he said in a letter to Virgin Islands Platinum News.

“The ringtailed lemurs might eat the occasional gecko, but since geckos are nocturnal and ringtailed lemurs diurnal it would be unlikely that they would eat any geckos at all,” he added.

The lemurs would be fed by “a full-time professionally trained person” and would not need to forage.

Sir Richard said claims that lemurs would cause “disease and destruction” were “inaccurate” but “the damage had been done” and he had decided to commission more studies.

But last night conservationists said they were still opposed to lemurs being brought on to the island.

Trish Baily, a resident of the British Virgin Islands and an environmental campaigner, said: “I still don’t get why Sir Richard is being so persistent because no one has done the studies of what the lemurs will eat on the island.

“What if they eat the seeds and native vegetation that is the energy source of local birds and particularly migratory birds that move through the islands?

“We have enough exotic species on these islands. We need to control them and bring back our own unique biodiversity.”

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