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Volume 28 No 5: September 1999 - by Michael Griffin


You'll find a welcome in the Falkland Islands these days - just as long as you don't get too interested in the penguins

After 18 years on the windswept Lleyn Peninsula in North Wales, biologist Mike Bingham moved to the South Atlantic in October 1993 as Conservation Officer for Falklands Conservation, a wildlife charity founded by the venerated Sir Peter Scott and funded by the Falkland Islands Government (FIG). Six years on, he is clinging on to the rocks after a nightmare ride through the worst that a remote and largely unaccountable government can throw at an outsider.

In 1995/96 Bingham led a penguin census of the archipelago. The results appeared to reveal a species in deep crisis: the rockhopper penguin population had slumped from 3 million pairs to less than 300,000. The decline was clearly linked to the boom in fishing that has become the Islands' main source of revenue in the 1990s. But with oil exploration fast becoming feasible, and 13 companies already expressing interest, environmental objections were the last thing the Islands needed.

In the course of 1996 the nature of Falklands Conservation changed from wildlife club to quasi-government body: FIG councillors and directors of companies involved in oil, fishing and shipping replaced amateur naturalists on the Board of Trustees. DL Clifton, a member of the eight-man Legislative Council established in 1985 after the Falklands War, and now a director of Desire Petroleum, one of the companies drilling in the Falklands, became Chairman; FIG funding tripled to US$240,000.

In 1996/97, Bingham spent his vacation making a penguin census in South America. He wanted to establish whether the rockhopper decline was a region-wide phenomenon. It was not. On 31st March 1997 he was told by Clifton that if he did not suppress his findings, he would lose his job, his membership of all FIG committees, and be kicked out of the Islands as an 'undesirable'. On 17th April his job was advertised in the local paper, and two months later he was out: contract terminated.

He determined to go it alone, and found shift work at the local power station to pay for further studies under the auspices of his own company, Environmental Research Unit Ltd. His first task was to go public in the pages of Penguin Conservation, but by the time the data was published in March 1998, oil exploration was already underway. Falklands Conservation had published statistics in the Atlas of Breeding Birds of the Falkland Islands in 1997. It recorded 550,000 breeding pairs of rockhopper penguins compared to Bingham's 297,000; and 102,000 breeding pairs of gentoo penguin, not the 65,000 of their 1995/96 census.

Despite criticism from experts, Falklands Conservation continued to publish its controversial figures on the state of the penguin population. In 1998 its annual research report quoted breeding success rates of 1.29 chicks per nest for a species that only rears one egg a year in storm-tossed conditions. Within weeks of the first oil rig arriving in April 1997, three separate oil spills had killed and injured penguins and other seabirds. Despite the fact that gentoos and cormorants forage close to shore, Falklands Conservation claimed the oil had come from outside the 200-mile zone.

Meanwhile Bingham was seeking funding for his own operations. There were two possible sources: the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) was interested in an albatross-banding programme and the Islands' Environmental Planning Department (EPD) had written to ask if it could purchase data from his coastline surveys. On 24th April Falklands Conservation wrote to the BTO accusing Bingham of banding birds without a licence and alleged he was also guilty of data theft - although the research that interested the EPD was conducted after his contract had been terminated. On 29th May an FIG official informed him that his application for residency had been suspended because of the charge.

By the time Bingham straightened out these 'misunderstandings' - and Falklands Conservation had sent a full retraction of the charges to FIG - he had lost his funding. FIG refused to lift the block on his residency application, refused to explain why, and refused to reveal the details of the allegations that might have enabled Bingham to take legal action for slander and lost earnings. By now, the shy and retiring local press, in the shape of Penguin News, had become more interested, but FIG refused to talk to the paper.

In September 1998 Bingham's home was broken into. More important than what might have been taken was his discovery of items of a highly illegal nature that had been left behind. On 5th October he told friends that he believed the police or customs were about to search his premises; Penguin News now printed a letter and an editorial exposing the campaign against him.


A few days later, customs officers conducting a 'routine mail search' discovered a pornographic video addressed to Bingham from a fictitious name and address in the UK. On 21st November a search of his house duly took place. "It would all have been very different if I hadn't come across the items hidden under my bed prior to the search" said Bingham. He was fined for importing prohibited material but not deported.

Then the phone calls began. From the end of January 1999 to March, Bingham was subjected to calls threatening further attacks and urging his immediate departure from the Islands. He wrote down every threat and passed the transcripts to the police, his solicitor and the local press. The police signally failed to trace the caller; Bingham became convinced the threats emanated from within the justice system itself. On 21st February he wrote to Penguin News and to The Sun and Daily Mirror in the UK, predicting his arrest and further attempts to deport him on false charges.

On 3rd March a customs and immigration officer called on him at work to caution him about his possible deportation for alleged deception. Bingham, he claimed, had mentioned no criminal record on his residency application forms, but Falklands police had discovered he had convictions in the UK for burglary, car theft and affray - ample grounds for expulsion. Bingham's fingerprints were dispatched to Interpol. They replied, with considerable irritation, that they had already told the police back in January that the convictions belonged to a man two years older than Bingham with a different middle name.

On 22nd April - one week after the authorities discovered their 'mistake' - Bingham was charged with making a dishonest statement on a job application form. He denied the authenticity of the document in question, and trial was set for 9th August. Two weeks later, Bingham's lawyer was informed by FIG that the case was being withdrawn. "A week before FIG decided to drop the charges," said Bingham, "they notified me in writing that if I insisted on proceeding with a plea of 'not guilty' and if I lost the case, an order would be sought to make me pay all the prosecution costs including the costs of witnesses attending. I told them I was prepared to take the risk since I did not believe I could lose. The fact that the Attorney General withdrew for fear of being left holding the bill suggests he thought so too." The Falklands police have now admitted that the application form they presented had been fabricated at the police station.

Attempts at redress have fallen on deaf ears. Complaints against the Immigration Department remain unacknowledged, while the Police Complaints Authority in London say that jurisdiction lies with the Islands' governor who is "too busy" to see Bingham or reply to his letters. Meanwhile, the harassment - both official and unofficial - continues: his residency is still suspended, Bingham's wife and son are now receiving malicious calls, and on 16th August, somebody sabotaged his vehicle.

So why does he stay in such an inhospitable zone? Though the oil companies have so far not found commercial quantities, drilling is shortly to begin to the west of the Falklands, the most sensitive wildlife area. "At present," explains Bingham, "there is a cosy arrangement whereby the FIG pays Falklands Conservation large sums of money, and in exchange, it supports government policy, even to the detriment of the wildlife they are sworn to protect. I cannot allow that to go unchallenged.

"There is no reason why oil cannot be developed, and the penguins and the Falklands way of life safeguarded," he continues. "I think the majority of the population would agree with that strategy, but their views are often ignored by people in power. They have their own agenda with vested interests."

You can read other newspaper articles about us our In The Newspapers page.

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