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Tourism, Kelpers and Penguins: One Week on the Falkland Islands

Keith the Kelper grapples with the wires, yanking some down, twisting them, forwards, backwards and then finally wrapping them tightly around the post. “It’s those cows that do this, they chew the signs, I suppose and they like the look of that tussock grass beyond the barbed wire.”

Keith Heathman’s attentions are directed solely at the mangled section of barbed wire fencing. He does not appear to notice the rays of sunlight glancing off the crests of the nearby waves, the mass of gulls roosting on the shore nor the 90 strong pairs of Gentoo penguins that are congregated on the dramatically rugged edges of Bluff Cove. This is the perfect natural frame that exceeds any wildlife enthusiast’s ideal vista. I am no twitcher, but this is incredible. To my left, Keith goes about his business with the fencing as if there were nothing amiss. Perhaps as a born and bred Kelper – native of the Falkland Islands – to be surrounded by penguins does not come as a surprise. Maybe he keeps his back turned to try and block out some of the stench.

This is far as I can get. Hindered not by the tear inducing smell but the fencing. The wire here could be in place to keep the flora and fauna protected, but in fact it’s there for the benefit of the number one predator, humans. To step, even carefully, beyond the now studiously repaired boundary could lead to an unpleasant and untimely demise. This wiring shields the wildlife from us and we in turn from the landmines planted here some 25 years ago and which litter the islands. I guess you could see them as a macabre tourist attraction or effective wildlife perimeter announcing the legacy of the 1982 Falklands conflict.

“I was taking some American tourists from a luxury cruise here to Bluff Cove to see the penguins a few years ago and I point out that all these surrounding fields are mined. And the tourist says to me, “mined for what?” Sometimes I don’t know what to say!”

One imagines that Keith says nothing. Tourism is booming here and competition is high between Islanders. There is an emphasis on drawing the cruise ship visitors back to the Islands as land-based tourists, willing to spend more money and visit areas further afield.

Job complete, Keith Heathman, contract sheep shearer and erstwhile tour guide lets me know that there are something akin to 30,000 active mines still left on the islands and that he is responsible for maintaining 57 of the sites. We head on to Beach Cove where I am barely able to hold the camera steady due to the 40 knot winds, snow, sleet and then rain which is flung at me. The one constant is the merciless wind. All other weather patterns cease, yet the wind whips up icy grains of sand, freezing sea mists and threatens to impede my viewing pleasure of the pair of King Penguins and chick before me. Snapping away rapidly to protect my fingers from frostbite I am breathless with excitement at these majestic creatures and their resilience to the elements reminding me of a saying Swedish friend of mine would utter in times such as this:

“There is no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes.”

The King Penguins are ideally suited.

One wonders if the penguins that abound here are grateful to the minefield sanctuaries bequeathed to them. It is among these plastic parcels of destruction that Kings, Gentoo and Rockhopper Penguins come to nest, relatively sheltered from the interference of man.

The levels of interference are relative. In 2005 an estimated 60,000 people came into the Falklands region on cruise ships. Of course, not every passenger actually set foot in Stanley or came to see the wildlife, but think about the consequences of such numbers, especially in relation to the possible 70,000 that will berth just off the coast in the 2006/2007 season. Even now in the off season one can see the scars from last year’s tours in the form of 4×4 carved rivets through the diddle dee, tussock grass and heathland. Herein lies the difficulty of managing the equilibrium between, sustainable tourism, growth and a fragile environment.

According to Grant Munro, CEO of Falklands Conservation, this balance is something that is hard to strike, but that is being managed admirably.

“We don’t want to be obstructive to the diversification of the economy. Progress here needs to be in a measured fashion. Steady growth and realisation. The main sites need to be well managed and developed, almost sacrificed for the sake of the others.”

Munro has reason for concern; the history of the Islands is one of exploitation for a fickle economy. Diversification has come and gone and left the Islanders and their environment reeling from the effects. In the past just about every species on the islands was seen as an inexhaustible resource, even the penguins were boiled up for their oil by the thousand. Then came the herds of sheep with their all precious wool. Profitable for a while and now a financial anomaly. The sheep shearing business can stake the ignoble claim of being responsible for the complete eradication of the warrah, the Falklands Fox, in 1876. The fox was seen as a credible threat and a competitor to the flocks and a bounty was placed upon each and every one. The warrah was almost joined by the caracara or johnny rook. A fearsome bird of prey, this too had a bounty on its head, but is now protected and could possibly be brought back from the brink, but remains endangered.

The next threats of rampant over exploitation could well surface in the forms of commercial fishing and unregulated tourism. Rockhopper penguins are reflecting the worldwide decline in their species with falling numbers here and 19 of the 21 species of Albatross are endangered.

It’s not all doom and gloom, progress is being made and the Islanders do seem aware of this. Long line fishing fatalities down 100-fold from the establishment of fisheries and two years ago tori-line fishing techniques were adopted.

It remains to be seen how tourism and the environment will shape up in this startlingly rich and fragile ecosystem. So often uneasy bedfellows, one hopes that the Falklands can find the ideal balance that will continue to bring prosperity in a measured and environmentally sound fashion.

(I visited the Falkland Islands in 2006 and found it to be one of the most fascinating places on my travels. The people were welcoming and the ambience was not dissimilar to rural Scotland…not to mention the weather. One worries for the fate of the Islanders in this current climate with President Kirchner’s Argentina).

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