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Planet Earth

Branson Plans to Make Lemur Paradise; Scientists Say, "It's Pretty Weird"

DiscoblogBy Veronique GreenwoodApril 22, 2011 11:14 PM

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Branson's plan to save lemurs is turning heads.

If you build Madagascar's lemurs a new home, will they come? And can you trust them not to trash the place? Sir Richard Branson

, private moon shot

funder, Virgin Group

kingpin, kooky billionaire du jour

, has been turning heads with his announcement that he plans to import 30 ring-tailed lemurs from zoos to one of his privately owned islands in the British Virgin Islands. The idea is to give endangered or threatened species a new place to live and breed—Madagascar's civil war has meant a resurgence in lemur habitat loss, and ring-taileds are listed as "near threatened"—but biologists and conservationists are pointing out how Branson could be doing the island's native ecosystem a serious disservice. “It's pretty weird,” Simon Stuart, chair of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Species Survival Commission, told the BBC

. “What else lives on the island, and how might they be affected?"

On the one hand, it's rather charming that Branson has such a hands-on approach to problems of conservation (he's also founded the Virgin Green Fund

to tackle next-generation fuel development), which are often depressingly intractable. But the red tape that generally applies in such situations is there for a reason. Introducing invasive species, endangered or not, doesn't have the best track record. The poster child is European rabbits in Australia

, where they have wreaked havoc on native plants and animals, but there are many

, many

other cautionary tales. Moskito Island, Branson's proposed lemur paradise, is home to several species that lemurs might decimate

, including dwarf geckos, and many scientists have pointed out that isolated islands tend to have very simple ecosystems

and adding a large omnivore like a lemur could turn things topsy-turvy. (Richard Black at the BBC does a great job

describing situations where something similar has been tried.) Interestingly, it turns out that there is already a ring-tailed lemur population in North America

(via NYT Green blog

): St. Catherine's Island, off of Georgia, is a wildlife preserve whose lemurs were introduced 30 years ago and who don't seem to have impacted the native ecology much. If the Moskito Island plan doesn't work--Branson has said if the lemurs become a problem he'll take steps to remedy it--maybe the lemurs can camp out there.

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