That Time Argentina Saved Penguins With Landmines
When the Argentinian government wanted to keep Great Britain off the Falkland Islands, during the Falklands War of 1982, they (unsuccessfully) used landmines. It didn’t work.
The British have regained control, but since the war there are parts of the Islands they dare not tread. Those areas have become sanctuaries for the five species of penguins that call the islands their home.
It’s an inspirational story, one where our efforts to destroy one another resulted in a serendipitous preservation of nature. It’s the crazy result of a war strategy that ultimately won by nature’s account.
By our best estimates, 10-million penguins once populated the Falkland Islands. After humans came into the picture those numbers plummeted to the one-million mark.
Whaling, sheep grazing, and fishing culled the populations, but the final move that allowed the penguins to repopulate? Landmines.
To this day, as they see it, Argentina allows Great Britain control of the Falkland Islands. The Brits have claimed the territory since 1833, but the Argentinians claim they had rights to it before that year.
The British not only outgun the Argentinians but have the support of more nations in their claim. Argentina can choose to see things how they wish.
The currency used on the Falklands bears the Queen’s visage and the flag bears the British Blue Ensign. Considering the geographical location of the islands, one has to wonder why the Brits cared so much.
The answer is a multifaceted one, but the original draw was oil. Not crude oil, but melted whale blubber.
The best thing about the Falklands used to be the whaling off the coast. The worst thing about them was the lack of trees on the islands.
To get the blubber off the whales, whalers melted it off in huge vats of boiling water. To b oil the water they needed fire, which meant they needed to burn something.
The usual goto was the nearest forest. What the Falklands had was penguins, so that’s what they used.
Penguins have a layer of fat which burns well enough to make a fire. They burned millions of the birds by the time whaling went out of fashion.
Amidst the turmoil of a junta, on Friday, 2 April 1982, one of Argentina’s military leaders, Admiral Jorge Anaya, thought a battle for the Falklands would invigorate some national pride.
Admiral Anaya was part of the recently ascended leadership, reporting to the acting president. The people were living in difficult times. They were tired. The junta had been in place since ’76.
Anaya’s plan worked, sort of, until it didn’t. The Brits responded with the might of their reputed naval fleet, responding from the British islands and Gibraltar with troops.
The war took just over two months to end. Argentina suffered massive casualties, but during their occupation of the islands, they littered them with some 20,000 landmines. Those pesky mines would prove heroic later.
To excuse the expense of the war, the Brits ran a PR campaign marketing the great fishing on the Falkland Islands. It was, after all, good fishing.
The only problem was that the penguins lived off those fish. They were again at risk, but there was one thing helping them out.
The landmines that the Argentinians left behind were difficult to find, difficult to remove. Despite efforts, the British could not safely remove the mines.
They could fish from boats, but the mines would limit access to certain areas of the islands.
The Falklands islanders opted to leave the mines there for three decades. The penguins were too light to set off the explosion, so they cordoned off areas where there were mines and posted signs.
It worked well. People stayed away and the penguins thrived undisturbed by people for the first time in three hundred years.
Their populations have since risen to the one million mark. It’s not the tens of thousands they once had, but the tide has turned.
In a touch of irony, the controversial preserve has become a draw for tourism, something good for the Falklands, which is in turn good for the penguins. Money means they have the means to better protect the birds.
In 2009, under pressure from the international community per the Ottawa convention, did they start the removal process.