* He offers Caribbean island refuge for Madagascar lemurs
* But some experts say plan misguided, could be disastrous
By Pascal Fletcher
MIAMI, April 22 British billionaire businessman
and adventurer Sir Richard Branson has plans to fly commercial
passengers into space, but his terrestrial scheme to relocate
endangered Madagascar lemurs on a Caribbean island he owns is
getting flak from some conservation experts,
The Virgin Group VA.L founder, who has combined a
meteoric business career with round the world balloon flights
and philanthropic initiatives, has announced he will resettle
lemurs collected from zoos on 120-acre (48-hectare) Moskito
Island, part of the British Virgin Islands archipelago.
He wants to create a new island sanctuary for lemurs,
primates native to the Madagascar and Comoro islands off Africa
which are threatened by the rapid destruction of their natural
habitat due to unchecked farming, hunting, mining and logging.
The bright-eyed furry-faced creatures are favorites with
children at zoos and figured, as animated recreations, in the
popular DreamWorks movie "Madagascar".
British Virgin Islands officials have approved the Branson
plan, but some conservation experts say that, while apparently
well-intentioned, it could be an ecological disaster.
"I do think it's a bad idea ... we have experience over and
over and over again that when you transplant organisms from one
part of the Earth to another part of the Earth the results are
usually bad," Anne D. Yoder, a lemur expert and director of the
Duke Lemur Center in North Carolina, told Reuters on Friday.
She said that Branson, instead of trying to set up a new
island home for the lemurs on Moskito, would do better to
donate resources to trying to protect and preserve their
natural but severely endangered habitat on Madagascar.
"Everything in Madagascar is pretty unique to Madagascar,
so there are no parallel universes on planet Earth ... that's
part of the problem. That's why the solutions need to be
implemented in Madagascar not in other places," Yoder said.
She said she understood that Branson, like conservationists
around the world, was probably feeling "desperation" to try to
help the endangered lemurs, but she believed his resettlement
plan was not the answer.
"There's so much good that could be done and this is not
it," she said in a phone interview.
Branson, whose U.S.-based Virgin Galactic has been selling
tickets to customers for rides in a suborbital spaceship it is
developing, has defended his lemur conservation idea.
He says Moskito's rainforest environment, uninhabited by
humans, is ideal for the shy lemurs, and has told reporters he
has been consulting South African primate experts. Vets would
help with the animals' acclimatization in their new home.
Yoder said she doubted the Caribbean habitat could sustain
the lemurs and the plan risked harming local flora and fauna.
"Either way, it's a disaster, because if the lemurs do
supremely well, they're going to outcompete the native biota
(plant and animal life)," she said. "If the lemurs are
introduced and can't survive ... that's a disaster, so it's
just hard to see a good solution here," she added.
Lemurs mostly eat leaves and fruits, and sometimes insects,
and Yoder said the more than 230 examples of 19 different
species at her Duke Lemur Center in North Carolina required a
high level of care and attention.
"Every lemur is checked every day ... they all have very
specialized diets," she said, adding that the center employed
two full-time veterinarians and a staff of 30 people.
"To see someone say 'Oh, I'm just going to release them on
this island', we know that just doesn't work," Yoder said.
Branson's plan, and reactions to it, has generated lively
debate on media and environmental websites.
"Why doesn't Branson just buy x thousand acres of Virgin
Madagascar rainforest to preserve it for the lemurs?" read one
recent posting on a BBC website.
"I wish a similar plan would put elephants and cheetahs in
North America's Mojave Desert again," read another in response
to a recent New York Times article.
(Reporting by Pascal Fletcher; editing by Anthony Boadle)