War Profiteering Penguins

Magellan Penguins / On Flickr by jjunyent

Sometimes it is said that war has no winners.

And while war and the devastation and suffering that it entails is surely one of the worst of humanity’s failings, the penguins of Yorke Bay seem to indeed have profited off the 1982 Falklands War. 

When Argentinian forces occupied the Falklands several thousand mines were placed all over the islands to deter British forces from landing. One of the most heavily mined areas was the penguin dense Yorke Bay, home to the Magellan and Gentoo penguins as it was perceived to be a likely landing bay for a counter invasion.

When the British eventually reclaimed the Falklands most of the mines were disarmed and removed from the islands. Yorke Bay, however, remained untouched as the shifting sand dunes made the mines difficult to locate. Even as the Argentinian government, following the war, had handed over detailed maps of the landmines’ locations from all areas of the islands the ones at Yorke Bay were to remain. Instead of being demined the area was simply fenced off with barbed-wire fencing and warning signs, barring anyone from entry. 

Thus, Yorke Bay and its many penguins were left cut off from the rest of the island. And while penguins and landmines sound like an odd combination, it seems to have been a match made in heaven. Apparently the penguins were too light to set the explosives off. This effectively created an animal sanctuary for the little birds who were now not only protected by barbed wire but by anti-personnel weaponry. 

Warning for mines / On Flickr by michael clarke stuff

This is the reason that the 2019 goal of completely demining the area has raised worries by conservationists and locals alike. 

This natural barrier made it possible for the penguins to thrive as they were left undisturbed by competitors. The fenced-up areas became natural wildlife sanctuaries where the islands unique native flora stood safe from grazing animals and where penguins could be undisturbed by human activity. This used to not be the case for Yorke Bay previously, as it was an immensely popular leisure beach

One of the issues that penguins on the islands face is the fact that they attract tourists. Over 50 000 people a year are estimated to reach the island and their goal is mainly to watch the little birds. As most of the beaches where they make their habitat is privately owned land, it has also been hard for the government and conservationists to properly maintain insight and control over the local populations. Tourists thus get free roam to walk among the penguins at their and the landowners’ leisure. 

Gentoo Penguins / On Flickr by John5199

However, after Britain signed the Ottawa treaty, the mines have to go. This has raised concern for the penguins’ wellbeing as the shores will yet again be safe to traverse and humans and livestock can yet again walk the areas. 

Conservationists are taking precautions for this as the demining operation draws to a conclusion, expected to be completed before the end of 2019. Programs will be taken into effect to hopefully protect the newly available areas, with a goal of diminishing the impact on the local bird population. One strategy employed is to demine in the winter as the Gentoos are no longer tied up to their nests and the Magellans are out on seasonal migration. 

All in all, the demining has not been popular by the Islands residents who has mostly not seen the point of it. Aside from environmentally grounded criticism, the large costs of the demining operations have been brought up, as well as the fact that the mines have so far been of no safety concern. There have been no records of any civilians damaged by the mines and the only ever accident occurred in 1984 when an officer lost a foot at the minefields’ perimeters. Seeing as this resulted in extended fencing the risks diminished even further. If the now controlled mining zone was to open up to the public, there are also concerns for is someone getting injured again if stray mines were to be missed. 

How wildlife will be affected may yet be unclear, but populations reports of penguins are continuously updated by the Falklands Conservation

Daniel Bergdal

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