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When Humans Fight, but Animals Win

Penguins have resorted to using landmines to keep pesky humans away.

Chances are when you think “Falkland Islands,” you think of the extremely disproportionate war in 1982, when Argentina and the United Kingdom faced off over 200-some rocky islands off the coast of South America. The 74-day-long conflict incurred over 900 casualties, and reaffirmed the UK’s sovereignty over the Falkland’s roughly 1,800 people and 400,000 sheep. But for some scientists and conservationists, the Falkland Islands mean one thing: penguins. Home to one million Gentoo, King, Macaroni, Magellanic, and Southern Rockhopper penguins, the islands boast a stunning and diverse population of aquatic birds. Amazingly, their ability to thrive can largely be linked back to the military excesses of the war.

Some 300 years ago, there were about 10 million penguins in the Falklands, but a few centuries of whaling, grazing, overfishing, and general human-on-nature violence whittled those numbers down significantly. Then, during the war, the combatants laid about 25,000 landmines all over the islands—landmines that even now, 30 years later, are still intact and active. While these deadly traps have rendered large swaths of pastoral land unusable for the island’s human residents, it turns out penguins just aren’t heavy enough to trip the mines, affording a sizable safe haven for stabilizing penguin populations.

When I heard about the Falklands penguins, it seemed like a bizarre fluke. Although it’s difficult to compare to the horrors humans inflict upon each other, war is usually hell for the animals caught in the crossfire, too. Recently, at least a quarter of the world’s population of wild mountain gorillas came under fire when the Democratic Republic of Congo’s M23 rebels moved into the Virunga National Park reserve (following a similar occupation by the CNDP militia four years prior). And, according to a recent report by conservationists Born Free USA and C4ADS, militants like Nigeria’s Boko Haram and Somalia’s al-Shabaab actively poach endangered species to fund their conflicts. But even in the wake of devastating war and human catastrophe, animals still demonstrate an amazing ability to build something new for themselves in the chaos mankind leaves behind.

Animals often thrive when humans take themselves out of the picture. It’s the same principle that’s allowed America to turn dozens of massive landfills into teeming and secure wildlife habitats. Nomans Land Island Wildlife Refuge, off Martha’s Vineyard, is a haven for cormorants and terns; after 54 years of use as a firing range by the US Navy, even a massive cleanup effort in 1997 couldn’t assure that all explosive ordinance had been cleared. Most famously, though, humans shelled themselves right out of the 150 by 2.5-mile, mine-filled Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. The DMZ has become home to dozens of bird species, including two endangered cranes, and possibly even Amur leopards, Asiatic black bears, and Siberian tigers. South Korea went so far as to try to have the DMZ declared a UNESCO wildlife conservation. Even Chernobyl, a nuclear wasteland the size of Luxembourg, has somehow, over its 28 years of isolation, become home to a herd of endangered Przewalski’s wild horses and rare European wolves.

But in one odd case, the animals are actually recovering amidst the violence. In Somalia, illegal overfishing and waste dumping led directly to the resurgence of piracy in the weak and fractured nation’s waters. As fishermen have turned to piracy and driven out foreign trawlers, they’ve allowed fish populations to bounce back magnificently. It seems likely we’ll see something similar again in Nigeria as piracy has, as of this year, shut down two-thirds of the region’s overused fisheries.

Let’s be clear, sometimes when life bounces back from the damage of human disasters, it’s revolutionary—just look at the toxin-cleaning yeasts and extremophiles swimming happily in the industrial sludge of Butte, Montana’s Berkeley Pit. Other times, it’s just a fluke side effect of human meddling; Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar’s imported hippos have been running rampant in rural Colombia for more than 20 years, ever since the end of the offensive against his compound. And sometimes, you’ve just got to be struck by how, even after we’ve thoroughly trashed the earth, life finds a way.

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