Branson creates Lemur Land; conservationists whine

Lemur / Open Cages Info

Sir Richard Branson announced this week he’s giving his spare British Virgin Island to lemurs, which are getting wiped out at an alarming rate in Madagascar because of political instability, which has lead to unrestrained logging, slash and burn agriculture, poaching and capturing lemurs to sell as pets.

The BBC claims the plan is setting off alarm bells, quoting Simon Stuart, chair of the IUCN’s Species Survival Commission saying the plan is “pretty weird – I would be alarmed about it and would want some reassurances.” The IUCN seems mainly troubled that lemurs might interfere with the ecosystem of Moskito and the BBC likens the danger to when rabbits and toad were introduced to Australia.

Here’s why I don’t see what the fuss is about:

Other people are doing it. There are already two outside populations of lemurs in North America and they have not yet overrun our continent. In Florida there’s the Lemur Conservation Society, which isn’t open to the public, but lets their 40 brown lemurs run as close to free as possible on 100 acres so they can be studied and saved. They stress that it’s a functioning lemur colony–a reserve population and not just some tourist attraction. Off Georgia, St. Catherine’s Wildlife Survival Center has another sort of colony, which you also can’t visit. Monkeyland Sanctuary in South Africa keeps three lemur species.

Around the world biologists have set up reserve populations of other primates and mammals. California has the Gibbon Conservation Center, which has 40 gibbons and is open to the public. Tasmania is moving Tasmanian devils who don’t have the horrible, contagious mouth cancer that’s inflicting the species to nearby islands.  Monkey Mountain in France has reintroduced 600 of the endangered monkeys it raises back to the wild in Morocco.

The island is teeny. Plus, it’s an island. Moskito is 120 hecactres (that’s roughly half a square mile or one square km). By contrast Australia is 2.9 million square miles (7.6 million sq. km). It’s a whole continent with several ecosystems and many plants and animals that only live there. Moskito is about 500 feet from the third biggest of the British Virgin Islands, Virgin Gordo, which is a whopping 8 square miles (20 sq km).

We have plenty of the particular lemur he’s helping. Branson is only taking one species, the ring-tailed lemur (lemur catta), which is classified as “near threatened” on the IUCN Red List. Nobody knows how many are in the wild. About 2,000 already live in captivity. Although its status was downgraded from “vulnerable” in 2008, the ring-tailed lemur is relatively well-off compared to other lemur species. If anything I wish Branson were being more aggressive and working on the even more endangered lemur species.

How many lemur species are there? Well, the taxonomists are still working that out. Officially there are now 101, up from about 60 a decade ago. But biologists may be splitting hairs; there’s not enough data on 41 lemur species to get a population estimate and seven they haven’t tried. Some seem to be interbreeding–a big no-no if you want to be considered a distinct species. About one-quarter are in real trouble: eight are “critically endangered” and 18 are plain endangered. Another one-fifth are near trouble (officially, that’s vulnerable or near threatened). Only eight are considered relatively safe or of “least concern.”

Where to go to see primates in the wild or at sanctuaries


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