Day 6

Penguins that found sanctuary in a minefield may be threatened by demining campaign

35 years ago, Argentine forces mined a beach in the Falkland Islands and created an accidental nature reserve for penguins. Now, a demining operation is in the works, and some conservationists fear it might threaten the penguins' habitat.
Magellanic penguins stand together on Saunders Island, Falkland Islands. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

by Brent Bambury

When Charles Darwin visited the Falkland Islands aboard the research vessel HMS Beagle in 1833, he got into a scuffle with a penguin.

"Having placed myself between a penguin (Aptenodytes demersa) and the water, I was much amused by watching its habits," Darwin recorded in The Voyage of the Beagle.

"It was a brave bird; and till reaching the sea, it regularly fought and drove me backwards. Nothing less than heavy blows would have stopped him; every inch he gained he firmly kept, standing close before me erect and determined."

It would be difficult for a human to get as close to some of the Falklands' birds today.

The thousands of penguins that nest and thrive at Yorke Bay are behind a protective fence, but the barrier isn't there to protect the birds. If a human were to venture along that beach, they'd likely be blown up by a landmine.

Penguin sanctuary on a minefield in the Falkland Islands

6 years ago
Duration 1:37
Argentine forces mined Yorke Bay in the Falkland Islands 35 years ago and created an accidental nature reserve for penguins.

The Yorke Bay penguins don't set off the mines because they're too light to trigger them, so the birds enjoy a nature preserve with artillery-level fortifications.

Now, after 35 years, authorities are preparing to clear the mines from Yorke Bay, and not everyone thinks it's a good idea.

A colony of gentoo penguins rest in a minefield at Kidney Cove on the Falkland Islands. (Enrique Marcarian/Reuters)


A beach, a conflict zone, a preserve

Before the Falklands War, the sandy crescent of Yorke Bay was a leisure beach, a stunning and graceful waterfront just a few kilometres from the capital city, Stanley.

Andrew Stanworth is the conservation Manager at Falklands Conservation. (Falklands Conservation)

"It's a long sweeping presence of a white sandy beach that is backed by quite high sand dunes in places, and then further around in other areas, by the native tussock grass that grows here in these big sort of bogs," Andrew Stanworth, the Conservation Manager at Falklands Conservation, told me on Day 6.

"It's a beautiful site and a long, beautiful sandy beach."

During the Falklands War, it was also strategically important. When Argentina invaded the Falklands in 1982, soldiers placed tens of thousands of landmines on the dunes, believing the British might try to mount an amphibious attack from the shallow bay.

It's not clear how many remain. There has been a concerted demining program in the conflict zones, but between 8,000 and 10,000 are still thought to be buried in approximately 100 identified minefields.

A Spanish C3B anti-tank mine from the Mount Longdon area in the Falkland Islands. (Dynasafe BACTEC Limited)

The fields, like the one in Yorke Bay, are controlled, fenced and well-marked.

"Obviously, people have been excluded from going in there for human safety," Stanworth says.

Behind the fences, Gentoo and Magellanic penguins are thriving. I asked Stanworth if he's surprised the birds don't occasionally detonate a mine.

"It's a good question," he says.

"In theory, some of the penguin species we have here are heavy enough to set off the landmines. But there's no record of that happening," Stanworth tells me. 

"The landmines may be buried deep in the sand, and the sand dunes are very mobile as well. So the sand may have blown over and put them at a depth where they maybe couldn't be activated by the birds. But, in theory, the weight of one of the heavy species could detonate an anti-personnel mine."


Compelled by the Ottawa Convention

It's not the safety of the birds that's compelling the de-mining of areas like Yorke Bay.

The Ottawa Convention, an international agreement on landmines, requires the Falklands be cleared of mines.

The original deadline was 2009, but a ten-year extension was granted and a deal worked out that directed resources to first removing landmines from critical areas like Cambodia, where they are still a lethal danger to people.

Falkland Islanders supported the extension, believing that the mines on their territory were well-managed and posed minimal danger to humans.

An Italian SB81 anti-tank mine in the Mount Longdon area of the Falkland Islands. (Dynasafe BACTEC Limited)

"Since the mines have been here, I have only ever known two of my 8,000 sheep to get blown up," Leon Marsh told The Guardian in 2005.

So residents are ambivalent about the demining. But the obligation to clear the mines by 2019 extends to Yorke Bay and the nesting ground of the penguins.

"Yes, it is an obligation," Stanworth says. "And obviously [the mines] do have to come out and that obligation will come over and above the rights of the penguins in this particular situation."

"But that doesn't mean that [the penguins] are not being extremely well considered as part of this process. The different methods employed there and put in place in discussions with the demining guys [are] to try and absolutely minimize any impact on the species that are there."


So what will the penguins do?

Stanworth says the impact on the birds will be minimized by the penguins' seasonal habits.

"The Magellanic penguins … they leave around April and they migrate up as far as Brazil, so they're not around in the winter. And the Gentoos, they are around, but of course in the winter they're not tied to their nest sites. So they're not on eggs and they don't have chicks."

So the birds may be at sea when the demining happens, but will they return to a disrupted landscape?

Gentoo penguins struggle to reach the sea in high winds at Bluff Cove in The Falkland Islands. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

"The penguins are surprisingly — not indifferent to their surroundings — but they tend to be more driven by the suitable access to their nest sites, and also to the flat kind of nature of where they are. I think if there's some kind of reparation after the mines have gone, then I don't think it will impact the nesting probabilities in future seasons."

Of course when the mines are gone, the fences will go too.

What had been a protected sanctuary will become an open and beautiful beach, one that's inviting to tourists.

Stanworth says that's when conservation management will be even more important.

"Definitely the fence around them will have prevented some human disturbance. I mean there's tourism here, but it's managed in places and these sites currently don't receive any human visitors. So certainly once the mines are removed and as the birds return to these sites, the management of these areas will be critical in terms of the long-term potential impacts on these breeding sites."

Some members of the local government think the risk and expense of removing the 35-year-old landmines is a bad move.

"Falkland Islanders weren't enthused by the idea, to put it bluntly," Falklands MLA Barry Elsby told the BBC.

Andrew Stanworth is more optimistic.

"I don't think, if managed appropriately, that there is a risk to these sites — if the follow-up management is appropriate. And of course, you know, a world without landmines would be a much better place."