Military blunder wipes out albatrosses and penguins

Subject: Military blunder wipes out albatrosses and penguins
From: Hugo Phillipps <>
Date: Mon, 22 Jan 2001 08:44:10 +1100
Hi everybody -

Please find below a news release put out on Friday 19 January by the RSPB &
Falklands Conservation, and sent to us by BirdLife International, about an
accidental fire that has all but destroyed a globally-important seabird
site in the South Atlantic and killing Black-browed Albatross and
Rockhopper Penguin chicks.


Conservation groups across the world are aghast that a globally-important
South Atlantic seabird site, containing hundreds of pairs of breeding
albatrosses and penguins, has been almost completely destroyed by a blaze
started accidentally by British troops attempting to remove ordnance from a
remote island in the Falklands.

The inferno, which raged for five days and is believed to have claimed the
lives of hundreds of penguin and almost fully grown albatross chicks, as
well as adult birds, occurred on South Jason Island, a nature reserve owned
by the Falklands Government.  British military personnel were visiting the
island, on Friday 11 January, to explode ammunition found at a site where
two Argentinian planes were shot down during the Falklands War.

Despite valiant attempts by the military and local fire crews to extinguish
and control the flames, an aerial survey, conducted on Wednesday, shows
that around 90 per cent of the `tussac' grass, the habitat containing the
seabird colonies, has been destroyed.  Conservationists fear that if the
fire spreads to the underlying peat layer, the man-high tussac grass may
never return, destroying the island's status as an internationally
important seabird site, which contained an estimated 1,750 pairs of
black-browed albatrosses and 900 pairs of rockhopper penguins.

Helicopters dropping water on the area and teams of beaters on the ground
have fought to control the blaze.  Fire crews from Stanley have reported
the sad sight of burnt penguins and other seabirds crawling away through
tussac grass, unlikely to escape flames fanned by ferocious South Atlantic

Jim Stevenson, of the RSPB, said:  "In addition to albatrosses and
penguins, the island was also important for sealions.  We are totally
astounded.  No- one dreamt that such a colony was at risk from fire as
no-one normally goes to the island.

"This incident raises questions about the validity of this military
exercise, when, in dry weather at the height of the breeding season, troops
attempt to clear ordnance which posed little or no threat to people."

Albatrosses are the subject of a current BirdLife International,
high-profile campaign because of alarm at their recent rapid decline,
driven largely by the fact that thousands of individuals perish each year
in the South Atlantic, when the birds become snared on the millions of
hooks used by long- line fisheries.  These magnificent birds, known locally
as `mollymawks', reproduce very slowly so it takes many years for
populations to climb back up from a catastrophe like this.  With
three-quarters of the world population of black-browed albatrosses, the
Falklands are internationally important for this species.  There has been a
30 per cent decline of the Falkland Islands' population of black-browed
albatross over the last 20 years.

The RSPB, which is actively involved in the seabird census work on the
Falklands, is seeking an absolute assurance from the Ministry of Defence
that there will be an enquiry into this incident and that appropriate steps
will be taken to ensure that this can never happen again.  "But beyond
this, to assist recovery of the damaged breeding colonies, the military
should also be responsible for restoring the habitat destroyed by the
fire," said the RSPB spokesman.

Becky Ingham, the conservation officer for Falklands Conservation, the
local voluntary conservation organisation, added:  "These species are under
significant threat from a variety of sources and the sanctuary that should
have been provided by the status of this island reserve was clearly violated.

"It demonstrates the urgent need for British Forces working within
sensitive environments to have a greater level of awareness about their
surroundings, and highlights the necessity for a review of their
environmental procedures."

Additional notes: 

1. Jason Island, which is approximately one mile wide by four miles long,
formerly supported around 1,750 breeding pairs of black-browed albatross,
and 890 pairs of the globally-threatened rockhopper penguin.  In addition
the island also supported an unknown number of other seabirds, including
prions and Magellenic penguins, both of which nested in holes and are
likely to have perished in large numbers.

2. Jason Island also held important populations of two land birds:  the
globally-threatened Cobb's wren, which occurs only on the Falkland Islands
and the near-threatened striated caracara, a bird of prey found only on the
Falkland Islands and Patagonia.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is the British charity that
takes action for wild birds and the environment.  It has joined with bird
and habitat conservation organisations worldwide to form a global
partnership called BirdLife International.  Falklands Conservation is an
associate member of BirdLife International.  Birds Australia is the
Australian Partner of BirdLife International.


Hugo Phillipps
Communications Coordinator
Birds Australia
415 Riversdale Road
HAWTHORN EAST 3123, Australia
Tel: (03) 9882 2622, fax: (03) 9882 2677
Email: <>
Web site: <>

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