No one knows exactly what has caused four apparently unrelated environmental disasters in as many months. Global warming has been blamed, as has overfishing, pollution and disease.
First, in late March the bodies of about 1,200 penguins were found on a remote beach in southern Chile. Next came the sardines â€” millions of them â€” washed up dead on a nearby stretch of coastline in April, causing a stench so noxious that nearby schools were closed and the army was called in to shovel piles of rotting fish off the sand. Then it was the turn of the rare Andean flamingos. Over the course of approximately three months, thousands of them abandoned their nests on a salt lake in the Atacama Desert in the far north of Chile. Their eggs failed to hatch, and all 2,000 chicks died in their shells. Finally, in late May came the pelicans â€” nearly 60 of them, found dead on the central Chilean coast.
No one knows exactly what has caused these four apparently unrelated environmental disasters in as many months. Global warming has been blamed, as has overfishing, pollution and disease. In northern Chile, ecologists have accused mining companies of fatally altering the flamingos' habitat by draining the area's subterranean water. There was speculation that the penguins might have starved to death as a result of the depletion of fish stocks, although a preliminary report by a local university now suggests they were killed by a bacterial infection.
Whatever the explanations, the events have caused unease among Chileans â€” a sense of guilt over not doing enough to protect their country's spectacularly rich wildlife. "Chile has very primitive legislation governing the management of its fisheries," says Alex MuÃ±oz, executive director of Oceana, an international marine-conservation group with offices in Santiago, Chile's capital. "We have a big problem with overfishing. Our industrial trawlers are having a huge impact on the seabed. We should consider these problems if we want to work out what caused the death of the penguins and the sardines."