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When Rich Folk Tuck a Species in their Well-Lined Pockets

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 21, 2011

Walter Rothschild and tortoise at Tring

The (U.K.) Guardian reports that billionaire Richard Branson wants to create a refuge for ring-tailed lemurs in the Caribbean, because continuing deforestation threatens survival of these colorful primates in their native Madagascar.

There are plenty of historical precedents for what Branson is proposing.   Two of them turn up in my book, The Species Seekers.  Both involved British plutocrats.  One turned out to be irrelevant to conservation of the species, while the other was a life-saver.

But let’s start with what Branson has in mind:

“We have had a lemur project in Madagascar the past few years and seen that things are getting worse for them so we thought about finding a safe haven,” he told the Guardian. “We brought in experts from South Africa to Moskito island and they said it would be perfect.”

But other experts say the introduction of an alien species from 8,000 miles away could harm the lemurs and local wildlife.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s species survival commission told the BBC the project could contravene its code for translocations and said the harm from introducing species outweighed benefits.

Other experts said it was too soon to judge. “It could be a brilliant or terrible idea but we just don’t know yet,” said Penelope Bodry-Sanders, the founder of Lemur Conservation Foundation, a Florida-based group which has a sister reserve in Madagascar.

“We don’t know what pathogens the lemurs will bring to the Caribbean or what pathogens they will receive. It is great that Mr Branson cares, and he has a history of acting responsibly, but we need more information. The jury is out on this.”

Walter Rothschild, an eccentric member of the banking family, had much the same idea as Branson early in the twentieth century:

At one point, recognizing that within the previous five years, visiting ships had taken and eaten 80 percent of the giant tortoise species on Duncan Island (now Isla Pinzon) in the Galapagos, he ordered his team to remove all 29 survivors “to save them for science” back at Tring, his family’s country house outside London.  Rothschild meant to keep them alive, along with 30 giant tortoises from other Galapagos islands. “I think 60 living Galapagos tortoises will make people stare,” he wrote.  This was no doubt especially true when Rothschild, in top hat and tails, rode on a tortoise’s back, in the photo above.

But Walter’s megalomaniacal rescue attempt ultimately made no difference to survival of the species.  Enough tortoises survived in the wild to provide the stock for a later, more scientific, captive-rearing program, begun in 1965, with the result that roughly 350 tortoises now live on Pinzon.  Rothschild’s conservation efforts were more successful when he leased entire islands to protect wildlife on site–notably on Aldabra in the Indian Ocean.

Things turned out much better, though, when wealthy Europeans essentially kidnapped Père David’s deer:

David first heard about the species that would become known as Père David’s deer, or Elaphurus davidianus, soon after his arrival in China.  It had long since been hunted out in the wild, but a herd of 120 animals survived in a deforested and overgrazed imperial hunting park a few miles south of Beijing.   Locals called this deer ssu-pu-hsiang, “the four characters which do not match,” because it supposedly had the tail of an ass, the hooves of a cow, the neck of a camel, and the antlers of a stag.  David made the hike out to the imperial park and by befriending the guards or climbing on a wall he managed to get a glimpse of the herd.  “All my attempts to secure a specimen, or even some remains, were unsuccessful,” he wrote.  “It is said that there is a death penalty for anyone who dares to kill one of these animals.”  But his sense of the “utmost importance” of each species—each “dot” or “comma” in the grammar of nature—made him persist, and in January 1866 he somehow got hold of two skins “in fairly good condition.”

In the ensuing excitement about the “new” species, both French and British diplomats pressed the superintendent of the imperial estates—probably none too gently–to release live animals for shipment back to Europe.   From these animals, a breeding population eventually became established at Woburn Abbey, the Duke of Bedford’s estate north of London.   In China meanwhile, soldiers in the Boxer Uprising of 1900 bivouacked on the old imperial hunting grounds, where they shot and ate the last remaining deer.

Père David’s deer would thus have become one more species lost in the rush to a landscape of pigs and potatoes, except that it had flourished in captivity outside China.   In 1985, Woburn Abbey shipped a breeding population back to Beijing, where the deer soon became established on the grounds of the same imperial park where Armand David first discovered them, now called the Beijing Milu Park (“milu” being the modern Chinese name for the species).  The deer population rapidly expanded, as deer populations will do, and they have since been translocated to multiple protected areas around China.  Instead of being extinct, the species now numbers close to 1000 animals  in their native habitat.

The bottom line?  Branson and the world at large ought to focus on saving Madagascar, one of the most diverse environments on Earth, and on stopping short-sighted politicians from turning the island into just another landscape of pigs, potatoes, and, of course, rice.
That’s the real fight.  The value of charismatic species like the ring-tailed lemur is that they serve as the poster children for preserving entire environments.  They motivate people to protect habitats shared with thousands of other species that are less charismatic, but are no less precious.
If Madagascar goes, it will no doubt be beneficial that the ring-tailed lemur at least has survived, and we will be grateful to Branson for his efforts.
But it will be like saving the cover of one of the world’s great books, and letting the contents burn.
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