Chile investigating rash of penguin, flamingo and sardine deaths

Chilean scientists are investigating three mysterious ecological disasters that have caused the deaths of hundreds of penguins, millions of sardines and about 2,000 baby flamingos in the past few months.

The events started to unfold in March, when the remains of about 1,200 penguins were found on a remote beach in southern Chile. Then came the sardines – tons of them – dead and washed up on a nearby stretch of coastline. The stench forced nearby schools to close, and the army was called in to shovel piles of rotting fish off the sand.

Farther north, thousands of rare Andean flamingos abandoned their nests on a salt lake in the Atacama Desert. The eggs failed to hatch and, over a period of three months, all 2,000 chicks died. The extent of the damage was discovered in April, during an inspection.

No one knows for sure what caused these three apparently unrelated ecological tragedies, although there are many theories. Global warming has been blamed, as have overfishing, pollution and bacterial disease. In the north, ecologists have accused mining companies of fatally altering the flamingos' habitat by draining the area of subterranean water.

Whatever the explanations, the events have caused unease. A suspicion that mankind is to blame has created the feeling that maybe Chile should be doing more to protect its spectacularly rich wildlife.

"Chile has very primitive legislation governing the management of its fisheries," said Alex Muñoz, executive director of Oceana, an international marine conservation group with offices in Santiago. "Our marine resources are facing big problems such as overfishing, and the destruction of vulnerable marine ecosystems by industrial trawling.

"We are still waiting for an official report from the government, but we should consider the lack of sound management of fisheries if we want to work out what caused the death of the penguins and the sardines."

Muñoz said the penguins might have starved to death due to depletion of fish stocks. While a preliminary report from a local university supports this theory, another suggests they were killed by a bacterial infection. It's unclear whether the deaths were related to those of the sardines just days later.

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