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Falklands in feud over lost penguinsSunday, 10th October 1999 - by Matthew Campbell
Michael Bingham, from Manchester, has been at loggerheads over his field research, linking an alarming decline in penguins to the lucrative commercial fishing of squid. Nobody denies that penguin numbers are falling. The causes, however, are hotly debated.
What started as a disagreement among enthusiasts in the obscure realm of penguin research, has turned into an acrimonious affair. Bingham alleges that efforts have been made to hound him off the islands to stop environmental concerns infringing on oil and fishing interests.
"It's got quite nasty," said Bingham last week on the telephone from Stanley, the Falklands capital. He complained of anonymous telephone calls, wrongful arrest, a smear campaign, and an attempt to frame him as an importer of illegal pornography.
It seems inconceivable that penguins could be at the root of such sinister goings-on in a community of barely 1,600 people, who were liberated from Argentine occupation by the British army and navy in the Falklands war of 1982.
Yet Bingham's problems have coincided with a boom in the islands' economy as oil exploration and squid fishing have transformed the agricultural outpost of the 1980s into a more modern, albeit isolated, society.
After moving to the islands in 1993, Bingham 41, who had previously been a National Trust warden in the Lake District, began work at Falklands Conservation, a government-funded wildlife charity. As its Conservation Officer, he conducted a survey of penguin nesting grounds in 1995.
The results showed the Rockhopper, smallest of the crested penguin species, to be in crisis, having slumped from 3 million pairs at the time of the Falklands war, to just 300,000 pairs. Bingham attributed this to a boom in the fishing of squid, which have become the islands' main source of revenue in the 1990s, as well as the penguins' main source of food.
"At first they seemed to be quite happy with the results," said Bingham. But when he carried out a similar survey in South America, revealing that the decline was not a region-wide phenomenon, attitudes began to change.
Bingham claims he was told by an oil company director that if he did not keep quiet about the penguins problem, he would lose his job and be kicked off the islands as an undesirable. A few months later, Bingham's job was advertised in the local paper, Penguin News. Falklands Conservation produced rival statistics indicating the number of Rockhoppers was roughly double that counted.
Bingham found work at the local power company to fund further research of his own. But an agreement to provide the results to the British Trust for Ornithology was thwarted when Falklands Conservation wrote to the organisation, wrongly accusing Bingham of stealing its data.
Then the government notified him that his application for residency permit had been suspended because of the theft charge. Even when Falklands Conservation apologised for its "mistake", the government refused to lift the block on his residency.
A few weeks later, Bingham's home was broken into. Bingham claims that he discovered "items of a highly illegal nature" under his bed. He disposed of them, and complained to the Governor that someone was trying to frame him.
Customs officers carrying out a "routine mail search" then intercepted a parcel addressed to Bingham containing a pornographic video. Police searched his house. Bingham believes they were looking for the items that had been left under his bed. At this point he began receiving threatening telephone calls, transcripts of which he handed to police.
"You're not getting the message, are you?" said one caller in February. "You're still causing trouble. Why don't you leave the Falklands now before you get thrown out?"
In March he was arrested and charged with concealing a criminal record. Interpol had apparently provided information to the Falklands government about a Michael Bingham accused of burglary, car theft and affray. It turned out the criminal record related to another Bingham, two years older than him.
"Mistakes may have been made," Andrew Gurr, Chief Executive of the Falklands government, acknowledged last week. He said the government was investigating Bingham's claims, but denied it was involved in any effort to intimidate him, or suppress unwelcome news about penguins.
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