Sir Richard Branson, the billionaire entrepreneur, is reported to have applied for permits to introduce a colony of endangered lemurs to his British Virgin Islands (BVI), Mosquito and Necker. Having “rescued” the island of Mosquito from purchase by a hotel chain in 2007, his intention was to turn his £10 million Caribbean tax haven into an ecological showcase, a luxury hideaway for the mega rich, with plans for Balinese-style, carbon neutral villas whilst “cultivating and supporting the biodiversity, then introducing habitats (such as rainforests) for people who will live in symbiotic form”.
The fanciful whimsy of the rich and famous is nothing new, however this controversial proposal has hit the headlines in BVI because it would appear that Branson has been granted import permits by the Natural Resources and Labour Minister, Hon. Omar Hodge, against the recommendations of technical groups in the Agriculture and Conservation sectors and in contravention of Territory laws. The decision is being contested by the Ninth district elections contender, Lorie Rymer and a petition is reported to be in circulation and will later be submitted to the Governor Boyd McClearly, who is appointed by the Queen and exercises executive authority on her behalf. Meanwhile, Minister Hodge is standing firm but has apparently alienated members of the community by stating on local radio that he “doesn’t have to answer to anyone because he is the Minister”.
The British Virgin Islands consist of around sixty tropical islands, ranging in size from the largest, Tortola 20 km long and 5 km wide, to tiny uninhabited islets. The Atlantic lies to the north of the islands, and the Caribbean Sea lies to the south. Most of the islands are volcanic in origin and have a hilly, rugged terrain and only around 15 of them are inhabited.
Branson’s plans for autocratic exclusivity have been previously dampened since under BVI law, all beaches up to the high water mark are considered crown land, and are therefore open to the public. Furthermore, environmentalists expressed concerns that Necker Island was one of the relatively few places in the world that a rare species of gecko lives and breeds and consequently Branson was only granted an alien land-holder’s licence on condition that any legitimate scientific expedition to study the geckos should have full and unhindered access to the island.
Lemurs have successfully filled many ecological niches in their native Madagascar since their reported crossing of the Mozambique channel on rafts to colonise the island and their diets are highly variable and demonstrate a high degree of plasticity. Their survival has required the ability to endure persistent extremes and as with all primates, hungry lemurs might eat anything that is edible, whether or not the item is one of their preferred foods, from plant material and fruits, to insects and small vertebrates and as a result it is commonly viewed as an opportunistic omnivore.
Foolhardy intentional introductions to delicate island ecosystems have resulted in major, and well documented, threats to indigenous habitats all over the world e.g goats in the Galapagos and the problems posed by some introduced species in the Caribbean itself should heed as a warning to unregulated exotic introductions. Ironically, a cat and mongoose trapping project has just been initiated on one of islands of the BVI Archipelago, Jost Van Dyke, where Hawksbill turtle populations and the Virgin Islands Coqui frog have been highlighted as being at risk, and permission is being sought from business and homeowners to access private areas.
The project will involve collaboration with a number of British and other government agencies including FERA and NGOs throughout the region, as many Caribbean islands are working to address the same problem.
The BVI is a signatory to the International Convention on Biological Diversity, and this project claims to actively support the Ministry of Natural Resources efforts to meet the obligations outlined in that convention, which emphasizes the restoration of natural ecosystems through the management of invasive species.
One can only hope that common sense prevails and the paradox of the Ministry/Minister’s decision to approve Branson’s request is realized or indeed, that the British billionaire’s naive plans and biological ramifications of an engineered eco-topia are curtailed by the sway of informed public and scientific opinion and bemused (and hopefully) negative press attention.