Billionaire entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson plans to create a colony of lemurs on an undeveloped island he owns in the Caribbean, saying it is a "radical idea" to save an endangered primate that is disappearing from its native African habitat.
Sir Richard, who has long been involved in efforts to save threatened animals around the world, said he plans to bring the first group of about 30 lemurs from zoos in coming weeks to Moskito Island, part of the British Virgin Islands, where they would be the only wild population outside of Africa.
Experts determined that lemurs would find a suitable habitat on Moskito Island, about 85 miles from Puerto Rico, with its plentiful tamarind trees for food and lack of humans to encroach on their territory, he said.
"I was really trying to come up with a radical idea to save them," Sir Richard said in a phone interview from nearby Necker Island, which he also owns.
The businessman and adventurer has secured permission from the government of the British territory to import the lemurs and said he hopes to find a way to address concerns of critics who fear the non-native primates will harm local birds and lizards. He said he plans to start with the relatively common ring-tailed lemurs, which he is acquiring from zoos in Africa, Sweden and Canada, but hopes to eventually have more than a dozen species on Moskito.
Lemurs are found only on Madagascar and the Comoro Islands and are considered the most threatened of all primates, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
The founder of the Virgin Group has developed an exclusive eco-resort on Necker Island that showcases renewable energy technology and reintroduced flamingos. Local school children tour the island, a practice he says he will expand once the lemurs get established over on Moskito.
His plans to introduce lemurs on 170-acre Moskito Island have come under strong criticism on environmental grounds from some quarters.
James "Skip" Lazell, a biologist who has been doing research in the British Virgin Islands for 31 years and has worked with Sir Richard in the past, says "it's a horrible idea" to introduce non-native species. Lemurs can be omnivorous and could end up eating the eggs of birds or a type of small lizard that exists only in the British Virgin Islands, he said.
Sir Richard said he hopes to meet with Mr Lazell and other scientists and find ways to resolve their concerns.