When British troops landed
on the Falklands in 1982, they took with them from their briefings
a decades-old Foreign Office joke. This was that the inhabitants
they would mainly meet were 600,000 sheep and 6 million penguins.
Mike Bingham's business - and
the love of his life - is penguins. That shines out of his written
research. He will go down in the history of naturalists as the wildlife
researcher who stubbornly blew the whistle and reported evidence
of an abominable, still little-known change in and around the Falklands
- that the penguin population has crashed to an estimated 1 million.
The figures in Bingham's census
are now three years old, yet astonishingly they have not previously
been revealed in media outside the islands. His statistics have
neither been challenged nor disputed.
The environmental catastrophe
they portray is bad enough. But Bingham, who is 41, has gone much
further. He maintains, despite official denial, that the collapse
may be linked with another development that has brought an undreamed-of
degree of enterprise and prosperity to the islanders. This is the
highly successful fishery and conservation zone declared by Britain
in the mid-1980s. The theory is that the fishery, even though restricted
to quotas, may turn out to be scooping up too many fish and squid
that are part of the penguin diet.
Something even stranger has
happened to Bingham since he compiled his census. He says he too
has become an endangered species in the Falklands. He claims he
has been the victim of a series of "dirty tricks" aimed at driving
him out. This happened after he started campaigning for stricter
precautions, as oil exploration - with its possibilities of greater
wealth - began recently.
Terry Peck - an ex-police chief
and senior councillor who won the MBE for helping the SAS in 1982
- said "I have no hesitation in saying he has been disgracefully
treated. The whole thing stinks. Nobody is doing anything to help
him. If penguins are declining that badly, something should be done
Others agree that this is the
factor which stands out in the murk of the dispute. The Falklands
are celebrated worldwide for having the world's biggest colonies
of rockhopper penguins. Those tiny birds, as they dive from cliffs
and stony beaches to bring back food for their fledglings, are one
of the most stirring sights in the natural world. Bingham's census
says their numbers are 90% down.
"The huge breeding colonies
that once produced large areas of barren ground, have now been reduced
to small clusters of birds huddled in the centre of their stony
territories," says his 39,000 word report.
The pre-eminent Falklands naturalist,
Ian Strange, has also reported an alarming decline in his famous
rockhopper colony on New Island. Sealion populations, thought to
eat the same fish and squid as rockhoppers, are also heavily down.
Now that Bingham's figures have been disclosed, leading international
penguin experts will want to check them, and if they prove reliable,
think urgently about calling for action.
Everything looked so auspicious for wildlife
in April 1994, when the charity Falklands Conservation staged a
press conference at London Zoo. It launched an appeal for funds
to help protect bird habitats, particularly from commercial fishing
and from a likely offshore oil industry. "Nature has granted the
penguins a relatively trouble-free habitat," said the TV wildlife
personality Bill Oddie, "but they face an increasing variety of
threats from man."
The appeal raised more than
£100,000. Down in Stanley, Mike Bingham, a former National Trust
warden appointed as the charity's research officer, was ensuring
a steady stream of front-page warnings about wildlife threats in
the Falklands newspaper, Penguin News. The weekly also printed early
results from his census.
In December 1996, Bingham was
taken to lunch by Lewis Clifton, the charity's recently appointed
Falklands chairman (and chairman of Desire Petroleum - one of the
companies drilling for oil in the Falklands). Clifton says: "Trustees
had decided to structure the organisation on a different footing.
There was general concern about the level of publicity oiled birds
were getting. There was concern that Bingham was a bit of a loose
But Clifton vehemently denies
this was because of concern among oil development companies, as
Bingham alleges. Clifton, who was later elected a councillor, also
denied that anyone had told Bingham he would be "driven out" unless
he quietened down. "I am not God," he said. "I am not in a position
to do any of the things he has suggested have been done."
Still absorbed by penguins,
Bingham decided to continue his research privately and took a £12,000-a-year
power station job. Last May the government told him his application
for permanent residency had been suspended because an allegation
by Falklands Conservation of data theft. Four months later the charge
was unconditionally withdrawn, and an apology issued, however Bingham's
residency application remains suspended.
Last November, Falklands police
asked Interpol to check whether Bingham had a criminal record. Interpol
sent the record of a man with the same surname but different birthdate
and christian name, stressing it needed fingerprints to confirm
any link. On March 3, Bingham says, an official visited him at work,
saying "This gives us the right to deport you" and showed him a
list of UK offences including affray and burglary.
Only two days after this embarrassing
scene did Falklands police send the fingerprints, which disproved
the link. Andrew Gurr's report says "there was nothing to indicate
a mistake" on Interpol's list. However a copy of the Interpol list
clearly contains the different birthdate.
And meanwhile Mary Cawkell,
elderly author of Falklands Heritage, a beloved and admired book
about the struggles of the early colonists, has written to Penguin
News "with mounting horror" about the Bingham affair. "Can this
be the Falklands I knew", she asks, most sadly.
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