Falklands in feud over lost
Penguins, business and politics
have collided bizarrely in the Falkland Islands, where a British
biologist is accusing the authorities of harassing him for making
public some disturbing news about the unusual rock-hopping birds.
Michael Bingham, from Manchester, has been
at loggerheads over his field research, linking an alarming decline
in penguins to the lucrative commercial fishing of squid. Nobody
denies that penguin numbers are falling. The causes, however, are
What started as a disagreement among enthusiasts
in the obscure realm of penguin research, has turned into an acrimonious
affair. Bingham alleges that efforts have been made to hound him
off the islands to stop environmental concerns infringing on oil
and fishing interests.
"It's got quite nasty," said Bingham last
week on the telephone from Stanley, the Falklands capital. He complained
of anonymous telephone calls, wrongful arrest, a smear campaign,
and an attempt to frame him as an importer of illegal pornography.
It seems inconceivable that penguins could
be at the root of such sinister goings-on in a community of barely
1,600 people, who were liberated from Argentine occupation by the
British army and navy in the Falklands war of 1982.
Yet Bingham's problems have coincided with
a boom in the islands' economy as oil exploration and squid fishing
have transformed the agricultural outpost of the 1980s into a more
modern, albeit isolated, society.
After moving to the islands in 1993, Bingham
41, who had previously been a National Trust warden in the Lake
District, began work at Falklands Conservation, a government-funded
wildlife charity. As its Conservation Officer, he conducted a survey
of penguin nesting grounds in 1995.
The results showed the Rockhopper, smallest
of the crested penguin species, to be in crisis, having slumped
from 3 million pairs at the time of the Falklands war, to just 300,000
pairs. Bingham attributed this to a boom in the fishing of squid,
which have become the islands' main source of revenue in the 1990s,
as well as the penguins' main source of food.
"At first they seemed to be quite happy
with the results," said Bingham. But when he carried out a similar
survey in South America, revealing that the decline was not a region-wide
phenomenon, attitudes began to change.
Bingham claims he was told by an oil company
director that if he did not keep quiet about the penguins problem,
he would lose his job and be kicked off the islands as an undesirable.
A few months later, Bingham's job was advertised in the local paper,
Penguin News. Falklands Conservation produced rival statistics indicating
the number of Rockhoppers was roughly double that counted.
Bingham found work at the local power company
to fund further research of his own. But an agreement to provide
the results to the British Trust for Ornithology was thwarted when
Falklands Conservation wrote to the organisation, wrongly accusing
Bingham of stealing its data.
Then the government notified him that his
application for residency permit had been suspended because of the
theft charge. Even when Falklands Conservation apologised for its
"mistake", the government refused to lift the block on his residency.
A few weeks later, Bingham's home was broken
into. Bingham claims that he discovered "items of a highly illegal
nature" under his bed. He disposed of them, and complained to the
Governor that someone was trying to frame him.
Customs officers carrying out a "routine
mail search" then intercepted a parcel addressed to Bingham containing
a pornographic video. Police searched his house. Bingham believes
they were looking for the items that had been left under his bed.
At this point he began receiving threatening telephone calls, transcripts
of which he handed to police.
"You're not getting the message, are you?"
said one caller in February. "You're still causing trouble. Why
don't you leave the Falklands now before you get thrown out?"
In March he was arrested and charged with
concealing a criminal record. Interpol had apparently provided information
to the Falklands government about a Michael Bingham accused of burglary,
car theft and affray. It turned out the criminal record related
to another Bingham, two years older than him.
"Mistakes may have been made," Andrew Gurr,
Chief Executive of the Falklands government, acknowledged last week.
He said the government was investigating Bingham's claims, but denied
it was involved in any effort to intimidate him, or suppress unwelcome
news about penguins.
This article can also be viewed ONLINE from
You can read other newspaper articles about us our In The
Adopt and name your penguin,
and we will send you reports and photos of your penguin's progress. We
will even send you a map to show you exactly where your penguin lives,
in case you ever want to visit. (Visitors are welcome).
The Falklands Regime by Mike Bingham
|We are always pleased to receive donations
in support of our work. If you would like to make a donation, click