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Friday, 19 January, 2001, 18:06 GMT
Falklands fire devastates seabirds
rockhopper penguins in falklands
Rockhopper penguins have been seen crawling from the flames (Photo: Falklands Conservation)
By environment correspondent Alex Kirby

Conservationists fear that hundreds of young seabirds have died in a fire on a tiny island in the Falklands.

The fire was started accidentally by British troops, who were exploding ammunition from two Argentine planes downed in the war with the UK 19 years ago.

The blaze, which began on 12 January and lasted for five days, destroyed most of the habitat which made the island a globally-important seabird site. The island is a nature reserve owned by the Falklands Government.

The UK's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) says it appears that hundreds of penguin and albatross chicks were lost in the blaze, as well as some adult birds.

Adults safe

South Jason island, where the blaze occurred, is about six kilometres long by 1.5 kilometres wide (four miles by one).

albatrosses at nest
Black-browed albatrosses are in decline (Photo: Falklands Conservation)
It normally supports about 1,750 breeding pairs of the black-browed albatross, and nearly 900 pairs of the globally threatened rockhopper penguin.

Other species found there include the Magellanic penguin, the prion (a small white seabird like a petrel), and an important colony of sealions. Jim Stevenson of the RSPB told BBC News Online: "The adult albatrosses will have flown off to escape the flames.

"But the young birds will not be able to fly till March or April, and if they stayed put they're likely to have perished. However, chicks can survive for several days without food, so if any survived the fire they'll stand a chance now that the adults are returning.

"We don't know how badly the penguins have been affected, because rockhoppers live in burrows."

Delayed recovery

Fire crews from the islands' capital, Stanley, have reported seeing burnt penguins and other birds crawling away through the grass as they tried to escape the fire, which was fanned by ferocious winds.

basking sealion
South Jason has a big sealion colony
The fire is said to have destroyed about 90% of the tussac grass on South Jason, the habitat containing the seabird colonies. But fears that it might have spread down to the underlying layer of peat appear not to have been realised.

Even so, the RSPB believes it will take at least three years for the island to recover. It said the 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".

It is pressing the Ministry of Defence to act to prevent any recurrence. It also says the ministry should accept responsibility for restoring the damaged habitat.

Rapid decline

The commander of British forces in the Falklands, Brigadier Geoff Sheldon, has publicly apologised for the fire and says there will be an inquiry.

Becky Ingham, of Falklands Conservation, a voluntary group, said: "These species are under significant threat from a variety of sources. This demonstrates the urgent need for British forces working within sensitive environments to have a greater level of awareness about their surroundings."

Three-quarters of the world's black-browed albatrosses live in the Falklands, where their numbers have declined by 30% since 1980.

Known locally as mollymawks, they reproduce very slowly. There is alarm at the numbers of albatrosses dying each year on the millions of hooks used in long-line fisheries.

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See also:

31 Aug 00 | Sci/Tech
Where the albatross wanders
20 Jul 00 | Africa
SA penguins again threatened
28 Sep 00 | Sci/Tech
Growing threat to rare species
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