How an Island Full of Landmines Led to a Thriving Penguin Population

iStock/JeremyRichards
iStock/JeremyRichards

by Hank Green

War—what is it good for? Well, if the Falkland Islands are any indication, it certainly helps penguins.

For several hundred years, human activity on the Falkland Islands—roughly 300 miles off the Argentine coast—threatened its penguins’ survival. But that trend started to reverse in 1982, when Argentina and Britain began duking it out for control of the Falklands. Turns out, a war, a few landmines, and some unstable diplomatic relations might have been just enough to get the penguins back on track.

The Falkland Islands are small. Collectively, the 200-plus islands that make up the Falklands are only about as big as Connecticut. But through the years, they’ve managed to inspire some Texas-size international contention. Ever since Argentina gained independence from Spain in 1816, it’s been vying for control of the Falklands in one form or another. Some Argentines even claim possession of the region today, even though Queen Elizabeth’s face graces the currency, the Union Jack appears on the official flag, and every other government recognizes British rule over the Falklands. Despite the fact that Argentina famously lost its military bid for control of the islands back in 1982, national polls still show that 80 percent of Argentines want their government to take back the Islas Malvinas, as they’re known in the Spanish-speaking nation.

So what is it the Argentines so jealously covet? Hard to say. The Falkland Islands aren’t home to much, other than about 3,000 humans, 700,000 sheep, and a few fishing installations. What they do have, however, is an enormous population of penguins from five different species—the Southern Rockhoppers, the Magellanic, the King, the Gentoo, and the Macaroni. Their names derive from, respectively, the ability to hop on rocks, a celebrated circumnavigator, a British ruler, a religious slur, and a slang reference to flashy dressers. With these five species combined, the Falklands are home to a penguin army more than 1 million strong. That’s pretty impressive, but it’s believed the number was closer to 10 million only 300 years ago.

In the 18th century, the whale oil industry was booming, and the Falklands had their fair share of whales. Not coincidentally, French, British, and Spanish groups began showing up on the islands to get in on the action. But whale oil isn’t exactly the easiest thing to produce. First, whales are brought ashore. Then their blubber is separated from their bodies, and the fat is rendered into oil in gigantic vats of boiling water. The Falkland Islands had plenty of whales, but they’re mostly void of timber, and burning whale oil to render whale oil seemed a little silly. So how did the settlers make their Falkland outposts survive? “François, throw another penguin on the fire!” Yes, as it turned out, penguins made surprisingly good kindling, thanks to layers of protective (and, apparently, highly flammable) fat beneath their skin. And it didn’t hurt that they’re so easy to catch. Penguins are flightless and unafraid of humans, so anytime the rendering fires got low, whalers simply grabbed a penguin or two and tossed ’em in.

One Fish, Two Fish

Fortunately for the penguins, the whale oil business died out in the 1860s with the discovery of fossil fuels. That left the islands with little commercial industry, and the worst thing the penguins had to worry about for a while was the occasional egg theft. But peaceful human-penguin relations hit a roadblock again in 1982, when Argentina made its ill-fated attempt to reclaim the Falklands.

Although the British presence on the Falkland Islands had long been a sore spot for Argentina, no Argentine leader had ever tried to force a national claim to the land. At the time, however, the military government, led by General Leopoldo Galtieri, was in a unique situation. Already unpopular at home because of his habit of kidnapping and killing opposition leaders, Galtieri started to get truly nervous when the Argentine economy began to sink. Fearing outright rebellion, Galtieri tried to enlist the spirit of nationalism by invading the largely unprotected Falklands on April 2. He quickly declared victory over the British, but his success was short-lived. Unfortunately for Galtieri, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher didn’t believe in capitulating to dictators, even regarding land as inconsequential and unprofitable as the Falklands. The United Kingdom quickly struck back. In the ensuing two-month conflict, more than 1,000 Argentine servicemen died, and Galtieri’s political downfall was solidified.

When the dust cleared, Britain’s leaders realized they’d just spent several million pounds to assert control over the Falklands, and it was probably in their best interest to find some way to prove to the public that the expense had been worthwhile. Fishing seemed like the best way to make the Falklands economically self-sufficient, so the British government set up an exclusive fishing zone around the islands and began selling permits to everyone from local islanders to gigantic international fishing companies. It was a fine plan, except that the penguins relied on those same fish for survival. Before long, competing with humans for food had become a far greater threat to the penguins than whaling had ever been. In a single decade, the Islands’ penguin population dropped from more than 6 million to fewer than 1 million.

The Spoils of War

The Falkland Islands War, and the dwindling supply of fish that came with it, seriously threatened the local penguins. But, ironically enough, it also led to their gradual comeback. Since the dispute, Britain and Argentina have approached one another on diplomatic eggshells, if at all. As a result, neither side has been willing to risk angering the other by drilling for oil off the Falklands’ coast—even though experts estimate that 11 billion barrels worth of oil lie buried out there. That’s good news for all of penguinkind. In other parts of the world, even small amounts of oil leaked from drilling stations have proven disastrous for penguins. The flightless birds rely on a very specific balance of oils in their feathers in order to maintain perfect buoyancy. When mixed with crude oil, penguins will either sink and drown or float and starve. But as long as tensions remain high between the two nations, the Falklands penguins are in the clear.

The Falklands War also left the penguins with a bizarre kind of habitat protection. During Argentina’s occupation of the islands, its military laid down landmines along the beaches and pastureland near the capital city to deter the British from reclaiming the area. So far, these landmines haven’t killed anyone, but the well-marked and fenced-off explosive zones have made for prime penguin habitat. The penguins aren’t heavy enough to set off the mines, but because sheep and humans are, the little guys have the minefields all to themselves.

Today, there are still an estimated 20,000 landmines on the Falkland Islands. Over the years, they’ve come in pretty handy not only for protecting the penguin habitat from over-grazing, but also for keeping out overzealous tourists. Consequently, Falkland Islanders have decided that maybe having landmines isn’t such a bad thing. After all, signs warning “Keep away from the penguins” will never be as effective as “Keep away from the penguins—or die.”

The Tower of London Welcomes New Baby Ravens for the First Time in 30 Years

Some of the baby ravens born at the Tower of London
Some of the baby ravens born at the Tower of London
Tower of London Twitter (screenshot)

There are some new residents at the Tower of London. They're only about 11 inches tall, are very noisy, and eat rats for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Fortunately, they're also adorable—not to mention protected by legend.

On May 17, the Tower of London announced that their breeding pair of ravens, Huginn and Muninn, had welcomed four healthy chicks, the first born at the Tower since 1989. The ravens are part of an unkindness that's been located at the Tower for centuries as a sort of protective asset. According to legend, the Tower must always have ravens, or both the Tower and the kingdom will fall. It's not exactly clear when the legend began, but according to the Tower, Charles II decreed there must always be six ravens present.

Huginn and Muninn are newer additions, having arrived at the Tower in late 2018, and they weren't expected to breed this spring. So it was a surprise in mid-April when the devoted Tower Ravenmaster, Yeoman Warder Chris Skaife, noticed something exciting going on. "My suspicions were first piqued that we might have a chance of baby chicks when the parents built a huge nest suddenly overnight and then almost immediately the female bird started to sit on it," Skaife said in a Tower press release. On April 23, Skaife noticed the birds flying to the nest with food, but it was only this week he was able to get close enough to see the four healthy chicks. The sight delighted him: "Having worked with the ravens here at the Tower for the last 13 years and getting to know each of them, I feel like a proud father!"

The chicks have grown quickly, already quadrupling in size since they were born, and eat a diet of quail, rats, and mice the Ravenmaster provides. The raven parents have an egalitarian feeding arrangement: Huginn, the male, preps the food and passes it to Muninn, the female, who feeds it to her tiny chicks.

The plan is for one of the chicks to stay at the Tower and join the rest of the ravens there. "As the ravens started to hatch on the 23 April, St. George’s Day, the raven that will be staying at the Tower will be called George or Georgina in honor of the occasion," the Tower explained in a press release. According to The Telegraph, the breeding program at the Tower kicked off in response to a decline in the number of legal raven breeders in the UK.

The last raven chick born at the Tower was Ronald Raven, born May 1, 1989. In his 2018 book, The Ravenmaster: My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London, Skaife wrote that "a baby raven looks a bit like a grotesque miniature gargoyle, but then you see them grow and develop ... It really is wonderful."

The baby ravens born at the Tower of London in 2019
The baby ravens born at the Tower of London in 2019 making some noise
Yeoman Warder Chris Skaife

Dozens of Donkeys, Mini-Donkeys, and Baby Donkeys Are Looking for New Homes

iStock.com/huggy1
iStock.com/huggy1

Cats and dogs aren't the only rescue animals that need permanent homes. At the Humane Society of North Texas (HSNT), there are over 60 donkeys, miniature donkeys, baby donkeys, and Thoroughbred horses up for adoption, the Cleburne Times-Review reports.

Many of the equines at HSNT's ranch in Joshua, Texas came from owners who had to give them up, and others were transferred from different animal rescue groups. As part of the ASPCA’s Help A Horse Home Challenge, HSNT is hosting events to help find new homes for its horses and donkeys.

Between April 26 and June 30 this year, the ASPCA is challenging equine organizations to adopt out as many animals as they can. The groups that see the biggest increases in adoptions between this year and last year's Help A Horse Home Challenge will share $150,000 in grant funding. On May 18 and June 8, HSNT is holding open houses at its ranch for anyone interested in adopting an animal. The events will also be used as opportunities to educate the public about the demands of equine ownership.

If you're not free to swing by one of HSNT's open houses, you can still apply to adopt a horse or donkey. Interested owners can fill out and submit this form [PDF] to equine@hsnt.org. And if you'd like to spend time with baby and mini-donkeys without taking one home, HSNT is also looking for volunteers.

[h/t Cleburne Times-Review]

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