By Pascal Fletcher
MIAMI (Reuters) - 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 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)