It’s interesting how on occasions when you set about to do something for all the right reasons it can backfire on you.
For many years I’ve been involved in organisations to try to save our planet’s most precious species. A year ago, I had Rob Stewart, a director of WildAid, to Necker Island. WildAid does wonderful work trying to save the few remaining tigers, sharks, gorillas, lemurs and other threatened species. (Mr. Stewart also directed the wonderful film Sharkwater about the plight of the shark due to shark finning for soup). Mr. Stewart urged me to turn our foundation’s attention to helping save the lemur by giving them another island other than Madagascar to live and breed on. He told me, “Lemurs are some of the most threatened primates on Earth, and their future has never been more uncertain. Deforestation, bush meat, political instability and the withdrawal of foreign aid is pushing Madagascar and its wildlife to the brink. Mankind is causing a major extinction, the largest in 65 million years, and it’s going to take bold steps like this to protect what’s left. Since most lemurs are vegetarian, they shouldn’t pose a significant threat to the local wildlife on Mosquito.”
I commissioned an in-depth study of the fauna and wildlife on Mosquito. The wildlife had been decimated by rats, and there was little left of it except geckos that had survived their onslaught. We set about introducing a programme to rid the island of the rats.
Since most lemurs that we were planning to bring to the island are exclusively vegetarian — the sifaka lemur, the black lemur and the red ruffed lemur — our experts were not concerned about the geckos. The ring-tailed lemur eats mainly fruit and leaves and might eat the occasional gecko. But I was advised that since geckos are nocturnal and ring-tailed lemurs diurnal, even with the ringtails it would be unlikely that they would eat any geckos at all. And since they will be fed plenty of food, under the care of a full-time professionally trained person, they wouldn’t have the need to forage.
We then brought in lemur experts from Africa to see if Mosquito was a suitable habitat for lemurs. Their conclusions were that the dense and tropical thatch palm canopy on Mosquito was perfect and that lemurs would thrive there. And since they dislike swimming, there was no danger of them leaving the island for Virgin Gorda.
So, armed with this research, we spoke to representatives of a number of zoos that breed lemurs and they said they loved the idea and would be happy to supply us (obviously none of the lemurs would come from Madagascar, as has been claimed by one enthusiastic aspiring politician). We were about to give the lemur a second island in the world to survive and hopefully thrive.
Then I woke one morning to a press onslaught from a gecko specialist in the Caribbean. “Lemurs are aggressive, omnivorous animals that eat absolutely everything. Introducing them would be an appalling idea. They would probably wipe out the gecko.” There would be “grave environmental problems.” This expert was certainly a gecko specialist, but a lemur specialist he certainly was not. But the damage had been done, and further inaccurate stories of disease and destruction started to worry Virgin Islands residents. The only positive that came out of the global press hoorah to follow was that Russell Mittermeier, the world renowned lemur expert, told me that in one week we’d done more to bring attention to the plight of the lemur than he’d been able to do in a lifetime! Maybe a little controversy was worth it.
Anyway, since our original purpose is to save endangered species, I would hate to be responsible for potentially damaging another species. So in the spirit of compromise and goodwill I will keep the lemurs enclosed whilst we get experts to conduct further surveys on geckos — and particularly the tiny dwarf geckos that are found on Virgin Gorda and Mosquito Island. If these studies indicate any serious risk to these geckos, we will keep the lemurs in enclosures.
We thoroughly enjoy showing groups of school children over Necker Island on a regular basis to see the 250 strong flock of breeding flamingos, the giant tortoises, the rock iguanas and the other wildlife that is on Necker. Once Mosquito Island is finished, we very much look forward to doing the same there.