Lemurs, tortoises and flamingoes are among the tropical species found on Richard Branson’s private retreat, Necker Island.
Until recently Necker Island, the extraordinary private island of Sir Richard Branson, was regarded as an opulent hideaway reserved only for the affluent special few. Charter boat operators would point it out and explain its distinction as a reserve for the rich and famous, standing as it does, like a Caribbean Bali Ha’i, frequented by Hollywood movie stars, tycoons and royalty.
Recently, though, the island has been made accessible to private groups with prior reservation through an island tour available by Gumption of See it Clear Glass Bottom Boat Tours, who will happily show interested visitors the island’s unusual wildlife. Home to many tropical species not indigenous to the BVI, the island is populated by a widely diverse population of birds, reptiles and animals. Not only that, but the reefs around Necker Island are many and marine species are prolific there.
A few months ago I was asked to captain a sailboat for a local resident, Kay Eade, and her friend. Their goal was to explore the North Sound area of Virgin Gorda and to discover the once elusive delights of Necker Island. Like many BVI residents she had heard of the introduction of the endangered lemur, a species of primate native to Madagascar. They have the face of a small dog, the agility of a monkey and an aura of a mystic. Their fascination and the fact that they are an endangered species prompted Branson to embark on the program that culminated in their introduction to Necker Island. Branson is renowned for his efforts in conservation and green energy. Since their introduction to the island they have prospered, and other exotic creatures have been brought in to make Necker Island a wonderland of unusual tropical wildlife.
When I took the tour last year, I was able to make arrangements directly through the resort. Currently though, all tours except school tours must be arranged through Gumption. But on the day we went, Leesa was our guide. She greeted us warmly and guided us to the waiting golf cart. Luxury confronted us almost immediately with the beautifully designed beachfront swimming pool but we were soon driving in a wooded area under trees adorned with – yes, you guessed it – lemurs. Although some were behind wire mesh fences others were roaming free. The red lemurs are critically endangered, there being only a few hundred left on the planet. We were informed that the fences are more about keeping certain species out than keeping other ones in as cross breeding is undesirable. Large bins of various fruits were out in the open and the animals could feed at their leisure. Apparently the animals are so comfortable they are procreating in vast numbers and over population could become a problem. Suddenly one popped its head over the top of a shed; another approached us head on and stood on its hind legs ready to perform a dance. The prettiest ones are the ring tailed black and white ones with grey fur and long bushy tails. All lemurs have hauntingly staring eyes; in fact the name lemur comes from the Latin lemures meaning ghost or spirit. Their feet and hands are similar to humans and not the expected paws with claws.
Perhaps the most unusual feature of these animals is their fearless nature. They will approach humans in an inquisitive manner even climbing onto you and if you happen to be holding a banana or apple you will soon have a new group of friends, close and personal. Lemurs are not threatening, aggressive or harmful but may become overwhelming if you tempt them with bags of their favorite fruits.
After about 15 minutes we hopped back into the golf cart, the standard means of transportation on Necker, and as we drove past the well groomed tennis court we spotted two giant tortoises. These two were Aldabra Tortoises, native to the Seychelles, but very at home on Necker Island. These docile reptiles, known for their longevity, allow children to ride on their backs (don’t expect any speed records here). Their facial expression immediately reminded me of ET in the famous Spielberg movie of the same name. Recently several other species of endangered tortoises have been given homes on Necker Island, the critically endangered Burmese Star Tortoises and endangered Burmese Black Mountain Tortoises.
Before we left the wooded area we noticed some colorful macaws perched on a tree limb.
They made themselves conspicuous by their screeching – and conspicuous they certainly were. One was a bright blue and gold while the other was red with patches of yellow, black and blue. These exotic birds are undoubtedly at home on Necker with their diet of bananas, mangoes and other tropical fruits similar to that of the lemurs.
We continued on towards the three tiered, thatch-roofed Balinese styled villa and as we passed a salt pond we were surprised and delighted to see a huge flock of pink flamingos. Flamingos were once endemic to the Virgin Islands, but disappeared from the Territory decades ago until they were re-introduced to Anegada’s salt ponds some thirty years ago. These exotic birds have impossibly spindly legs, long graceful necks and handsome features. They are at home in salt ponds where they feed on minute crustaceans, giving them their distinct pink coloring. Perhaps due to the success of the Anegada colony Richard now has a resident colony on Necker Island. Evidence of their success lay in the substantial quantity of young ones; smaller and with a downy grey coat.
We were generously invited for refreshments. As we approached the Great House, I almost tripped over two small tortoises. One was making amorous advances towards the other – and it was in the middle of the day too. We all had a good chuckle over that. We sat at the island’s apex; on a veranda adorned with a Buddhist statue and overlooked the turquoise splendor, mottled with patches of reef. It reminded me that Necker’s surrounding reefs are an exceptional habitat for tropical underwater life. The whole Branson family recently signed a petition to end the legal hunting of turtles during the winter months of December, January, February and March.
Finally we drove back down to the dock and bid farewell to our hostess and guide. It had been a fascinating tour. On the way back to the boat it struck me that for someone to buy a deserted island, turn it into a tropical paradise and make it a refuge for endangered species, all in a tasteful and harmonious way, a unique person would be essential. Fortunately for the BVI Necker Island found that person.