Munitions Fire Destroys South Atlantic Bird Sanctuary

PORT STANLEY, Falkland Islands, January 23, 2001 (ENS) — A remote haven for South Atlantic seabirds has been all but destroyed in a fire started by British troops attempting to remove ordnance.

South Jason Island is a nature reserve owned by the Falklands Government. It is an internationally important seabird site, which contained an estimated 1,750 pairs of black-browed albatrosses and 900 pairs of rockhopper penguins.

That was until January 12 when United Kingdom military personnel visited South Jason to explode ammunition found at a site where two Argentinian planes were shot down during the Falklands War in 1982.

The explosions sparked a blaze which raged for five days. The fire is believed to have claimed the lives of hundreds of penguin and almost fully grown albatross chicks, as well as adult birds. An aerial survey conducted last week, showed that 90 per cent of the tussac grass, which supports the seabird colonies, has been destroyed.

According to the Royal Society for Protection of Birds (RSPB), the blaze is still not out. Conservationists fear that if the fire spreads to the underlying peat layer, the high tussac grass may never return, destroying much of the birds' habitat.

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

"In addition to albatrosses and penguins, the island was also important for sealions," said Jim Stevenson, of the RSPB. "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."

For several bird species, South Jason was an important link in the chain of Falkland Islands, which are home to three quarters of the world's population of black-browed albatrosses.

The Falkland Islands are a remote group of more than 700 islands deep in the South Atlantic, They are 640 kilometers (400 miles) east of the South American coast and 1,600 kilometers (1000 miles) north of Antarctica.

There has been a 30 per cent decline of the Falkland Islandsí population of black-browed albatross over the last 20 years, according to the RSPB.

The bird is the subject of a BirdLife International campaign launched because of alarm at its recent rapid decline.

This decline has been caused largely by the fact that thousands of individuals perish after becoming snared on the millions of hooks used by long line fisheries.

The black-browed albatross is known locally as "mollymawks." The RSPB says that because the bird reproduces slowly, it will take many years for populations to return to South Jason.

The RSPB is involved in seabird census work on the Falklands, and has called for an inquiry into the fire by the Ministry of Defence.

"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 Stevenson.

Becky Ingham, conservation officer for local voluntary conservation organization Falklands Conservation, said UK forces should have been better prepared.

"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," said Ingham.

"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."

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