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Penguins stay snug and secure in minefields
KIDNEY COVE, Falkland Islands (Reuters) — There’s a mating ritual going on in the minefield.
Fortunately the would-be lovers are penguins, too light to detonate the deadly mines laid more than two decades ago during a war on the far-flung Falkland Islands.
Thousands of penguins and other feathered and amphibious friends choose to nest and rest in no-go zones. The British estimate that some 25,000 land mines, mostly sown by Argentine forces in the 1982 war with Britain, remain.
On a recent day, the squawking penguins were busily finding partners, preparing nests and waddling about the mating grounds.
Wildlife numbers in the mined areas appear to be on the rise and conservationists cannot hide their enthusiasm about this unorthodox form of protecting lands previously trampled by people or overgrazed by sheep.
It is the bright spot in a long-term land mine problem — one that is not likely to go away because de-mining is difficult, if not impossible, in the peaty soils and shifting sands of this South Atlantic archipelago.
Grant Munro, director of Falklands Conservation, says the boost to wildlife is a bit anecdotal since “it has really not been looked into, for obvious reasons.”
“But you see an assemblage of plants in the minefields, all fenced and inspected, with no livestock inside. Vegetation has had a chance to recover,” he added.
117 minefields left in islands
Most of the 150 minefields were laid around the capital, Stanley, when Argentine forces landed there in April 1982 to claim the islands taken by the British in 1833. The British armed forces defeated the Argentines 10 weeks later in a war that killed 650 Argentines and 250 British.
Some mines were cleared right after the conflict in a joint British-Argentine effort. Today there are 117 minefields left, 87 of them in the Stanley area where two-thirds of the islands’ 2,900 people live.
Stanley is also the landing point for nearly 40,000 tourists who come on cruise ships every summer to ogle the wildlife, much like the greatest of all naturalists, Charles Darwin, did in 1833-34.
One of the mined areas is at Kidney Cove, a stunningly idyllic stretch of beach across from Stanley where four species of penguins — gentoo, king, rockhopper and Magellanic — show up every year.
At the end of winter, the first 500 of 1,500 gentoo pairs begin their mating ritual at Kidney Cove after feeding in the cold waters. They waddle up from the mined beach to nesting areas among the tussock and diddle dee vegetation.
One of their favorite spots is on the mined side of fences with “Danger Mines” and skull and crossbones signs. Tourists are kept on the safe side of the fence, allowing the nervous, partner-seeking penguins to forget about encroaching humans.
“The gentoos come up on Kidney Cove and can rest there because it is in a minefield,” said Adrian Lowe, who runs penguin safaris on his family farm. “It is their natural habitat. Only the minefield fences are man-made.”
Just a few miles outside Stanley sits Yorke Bay, a sweeping crescent beach with calm waters where locals used to swim and barbecue. As an ideal place for an amphibious landing, it was heavily mined in the war.
Next door is Gypsy Cove, where experts believe mines might have washed over from Yorke Bay, forcing authorities to also fence off that area.
Gypsy Cove visitors can still see Magellanic penguins, rock cormorants, black-crowned night herons and dolphins from the walkway at the top of the cliff. The nutritious tussock grass, which sheep reduced to 20 percent of its original cover, is making a comeback at Gypsy Cove.
Incredibly, no civilian has died or been injured by the land mines and just one officer lost a foot in 1984 on the perimeter of a minefield. The fences were extended after that.
The government and the British forces still spend a lot of time educating the population and won’t hesitate to hand down hefty penalties — 1,500 pounds ($2,670) and a year in jail — for anyone stupid enough to jump the fences. Some tourists were caught posing for pictures on the wrong side of the fence.
But Sgt. Maj. Mick Owen, who heads up the local Explosive Ordinance Disposal, calls the Falklands “the most controlled mined area in the world.”
Leaving things be
Argentina, which puts the number of remaining mines closer to 15,000, is offering to help clear more fields to adhere to an international treaty on land mines.
Falkland Islanders, however, are not pressing on the issue, and most believe it is better not to fiddle with the fields.
“There is a risk that only 95 percent would be removed,” said Falkland Islands Gov. Howard Pearce. “You would bring a sense of complacency to the community and increase rather than reduce the chance of injury.”
Besides, he noted, “The environmentalists like them.”