Thursday, February 17, 2011

Dear Richard Branson: Lemurs Do Not Belong in the Caribbean

Would you cozy up in bed with these guys?
(Scroll down for two updates to this post).
As if the Caribbean environment is not already under enough man-made produced assaults, here comes another puzzling one. Sir Richard Branson, the famed English multi-gazillionaire, with his private fancy Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands that fetches about $53,000 per night, is planning to import lemurs onto nearby Mosquito Island. Lemurs are a small primate, only indigenous to the island of Madagascar, off the coast of South Africa.

This issue has caused controversy in the BVI as it is apparent that the Minister of Natural Resources, Omar Hodge, granted permission for this exotic species importation against the advice of biologists. Speaking out against the Minister’s decision was another BVI politician, Lorie Rymer:

“Sir Richard Branson has just applied for a permit to import lemur monkeys from Madagascar to be brought in to Mosquito Island. The technical people in Agriculture have refused to approve it and so have the people from Conservation. Now these are people who have been trained and have studied biology. They told the Minister we can’t allow that, it is in contravention of our laws and these animals could bring a number of serious diseases that can be very harmful.”

Richard Branson is widely known as a philanthropist who has given to environmental and wildlife causes. Heck, I’ve even stayed at one of his uber fancy little wildlife lodges in South Africa, the Ulusaba Rock Lodge, while traveling with a group some years back. Branson famously and admirably announced in 2006 that the future profits of his Virgin Airlines would be devoted towards developing alternative fuel sources.

So why, Sir Richard, why? Why bring an exotic species onto a Caribbean island where they do not belong? Surely you aren't really proposing to bring lemurs to lie in the bed with your guests as suggested by Minister Hodge???!!!!!
“So I sat down and I listened to him [Sir. Branson] carefully and I took a decision on it because on Necker Island that place is rented for $20,000 a day. And after listening to him I figure that if you’re going to have people or guest coming there and he or she wants a lemur to lie in bed next to he or she and paying $20,000, and those lemurs are not going to be anywhere else but on that island. They are afraid of water so they can’t cross the waters it is obvious so I said why not it is tourism."
Lie in bed next to the tourists? What kind of message are you sending here Sir Richard? Are you planning to keep lemurs as pets? Think they're like cats or dogs? Do you think there will be no risk of them escaping to other islands? Sure. That’s what aquarium owners thought when they kept exotic Indonesian lionfish in their saltwater tanks. All it took was 6 lionfish escaping into Miami's Biscayne Bay during Hurricane Andrew and now the Caribbean Sea is infested with lionfish.  The havoc they are causing on the reefs has been characterized as an “aquatic cancer.” Sir Richard, have you heard of what’s happening in Florida? People kept Burmese Pythons and African Nile Monitor lizards as exotic pets. Now they are wreaking havoc on the Everglades and the Florida environment. According to an article in the New Yorker:
Florida now has more exotic lizard species than there are natives in the entire Southeast. On a single tree you could conceivably find plants and animals from six continents, including parrots from South America, mynah birds and Old World climbing ferns from Asia, vervet monkeys from Africa, ladybird bettles from Australia, and feral cats from Europe, via Africa and Asia.

So I ask you, Sir Richard Branson, do the right thing. You clearly bring needed dollars in employment and economic resources into the BVI. You also gain by being the owner of these islands of Necker and Mosquito. And with that ownership comes stewardship of the environment. So do not piss in the eye of the concerned citizens and scientists of the British Virgin Islands. Do not bring an exotic species onto these Caribbean islands that do not belong here. Do the right thing.

April 19, 2011 Update to this post:
From The Telegraph, April 16, 2011
Sir Richard Branson's 'eco-island' plans hit by row over non-native lemurs
When Sir Richard Branson bought the £10m Caribbean island of Moskito in 2007 and pledged to turn it into a luxury 'eco-resort' he was widely applauded by conservationists. 

The Virgin tycoon said he had purchased the pristine island – part of the 60-strong British Virgin Islands (BVI) – to "protect" it and create "the most ecologically friendly island in the world".

But now Sir Richard has been accused of threatening its fragile ecology by planning to import non-native lemurs to live there.

Scientists say that lemurs are "opportunistic predators" that will threaten native species and are "totally unsuited" to the 120-acre island's habitat.

They fear that the lemurs, which live in the wild only on Madagascar, will bring in disease, devour insects and birds' eggs, destroy plants and wipe out the island's "dwarf gecko" (Sphaerodactylus parthenopion), one of the world's rarest lizards.

Sir Richard has applied for – and been granted – permission to bring in about 30 ring-tailed lemurs, with the first group due to arrive in the next two or three weeks.
The small primates, collected from zoos, will be kept in "large, comfortable cages" to acclimatise to their new island home before being released into the wild.

The Virgin billionaire plans to bring in other species of lemur – the ruffed and the sifaka are possibilities – if the introduction is successful.

Speaking from the neighbouring 74-acre island of Necker – which he bought for a reported £180,000 in 1976 – Sir Richard said: "The lemur's rainforest habitat is under threat on Madagascar.

"We want to create a second island habitat and the conditions on Moskito are perfect."

He said two-thirds of the island was rainforest and experts he had brought in from South Africa had concluded that the habitat would suit lemurs.

"They will be fully inoculated, so disease will not be a problem, and we will nurture them, with vets on hand if they have any health problems," he said.

The lemur project is the latest initiative launched by Virgin Unite, the group's charitable foundation, to protect endangered species.

Sir Richard said the lemurs might "take the odd gecko" but there were over 1,000 geckos on the island and their population would not be damaged.

He added that lemurs "hate swimming" and so would be unlikely to reach other islands.

One of his advisers, Lara Mostert, from the Monkeyland Primate Sanctuary, in South Africa, said Sir Richard's lemurs would have a much better life than in the zoos where they currently live and would thrive on Moskito.

Lemurs provided many of the popular characters in the 2005 animated children's film Madagascar and Ms Mostert suggested Sir Richard's son "wanted a lemur after seeing the movie".

But conservationists said the animals would have a devastating effect on the island's wildlife.

Dr James Lazell, a, biologist and president of the US-based Conservation Agency said: "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."

Dr Lazell, who has been involved in BVI conservation for 31 years, said introducing exotic lemurs into the BVI was an "appalling" idea and lemurs would probably "extirpate" the "BVI endemic dwarf ground gecko".

Dr Lianna Jarecki, an environmentalist and senior lecturer at the H. Lavity Stoutt Community College on Tortola, the BVI's biggest island, said: "Introducing lemurs to Moskito poses potentially grave environmental problems."

She said the island's native habitat was Caribbean dry forest and feared that Sir Richard would try to replace this with "an artificial rainforest ecosystem".

Clive Petrovic, an ecologist who led the environmental impact assessment for Sir Richard's development – before the lemurs plan was announced – said the island should be "extra cautious" about bringing in non-native animals because of the risk of disease.

Islanders have criticised the minister of natural resources, Omar Hodge, who they accuse of approving Sir Richard's application despite objections from the government's own experts.

Lorie Rymer, who is standing for office in the BVI elections later this year – in the district that includes Moskito and the neighbouring island of Virgin Gorda, the second largest in the BVI – has launched a petition against Sir Richard's lemurs plan.

Concerns over invasive species have been heightened in the BVI since Pacific lionfish escaped from a Miami aquarium after Hurricane Andrew in 1997 and spread throughout the Caribbean region, causing damage on the reefs.

Moskito island, which lies between Necker and Virgin Gorda, is said to take its name from the Moskito Indians who lived in the area from before the 1500s, rather than from the mosquito insect.

The BVI, a British overseas territory, includes the main islands of Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Anegada and Jost Van Dyke, along with over 50 other smaller islands. The islands' total population is about 25,000.

Sir Richard said that buyers had already been found for the "seven or eight" luxury, carbon-neutral, private homes that would be built on the island by late 2013.

Update to this post May 7, 2011 from the Telegraph:

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.
By David Harrison 7:56PM BST 07 May 2011

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. Read rest of article here.

4 comments:

  1. While lemurs are critically endangered, I disagree with bringing them into a different ecosystem. I recently covered golden crowned lemurs in my blog (endangeredextinct.blogspot.com)
    There are only a few instances of such an occurence happening with long term benefits in biological history. Cane toads were introduced into Australia to get rid of pests, for example, and look what happened. Cane toads are the worst pest ever and so destructive to local wildlife.
    I'm guessing that there are no natural predators for lemurs on Mosquito Island. That's not good, species all need some form of natural control.

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  2. Thanks for checking out the post Catherine. Yes, with all the evidence of non-indigenous species causing havoc when they are transported to different ecosystems, you would think more care would be taken.

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  3. Yet another rich guy that only wants what he wants under the umbrella of natural or green or environmentally friendly or socially conscious. blah blah blah. To hell with the locals. Lets impose what we think they need and then brag about it. With all those sustainability experts who needs the locals anyway? while we are on this subject of, well, environment, sorta, check out Richard Branson's carbon"war room" that includes ethanol production. Then see if you can find Monsanto. Just wondering...

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  4. Thanks for checking out the blog and for alerting us to these deeper issues.

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