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Oil spill threatens rare penguins

Thousands of endangered penguins have been coated with oil after a cargo ship ran aground on a remote island in the South Atlantic Ocean last week, officials and conservationists have confirmed.

The MS Olivia was grounded on Nightingale Island, part of the Tristan da Cunha UK overseas territory in the South Atlantic, while carrying 1,500 tonnes of crude oil and 60,000 tonnes of soya beans from Brazil to Singapore.

Tristan da Cunha's conservation officer, Trevor Glass, said oil was encircling Nightingale Island and called the situation "a disaster".

Richard Cuthbert, a research biologist with Britain's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), said the wreck was "potentially disastrous for wildlife and the fishery-based economy of these remote islands" and added that there was also a risk of rats from the ship coming ashore and eating the chicks and eggs of native seabirds.

He said: "Nightingale is one of two large islands in the Tristan da Cunha group that are rodent-free. If rats gain a foothold, their impact would be devastating."

The territory's British administrator, Sean Burns, said more than half of about 500 birds gathered by rescue workers had been coated in oil. An environmentalist at the scene estimated that 20,000 penguins might be affected.

Mr Burns confirmed he had temporarily closed the area around Nightingale and nearby Inaccessible Island to fishing.

He said: "We are concerned about the potential impact (the spill) may have on the spawning grounds.The lobster fishery is what Tristan depends on. The revenue keeps this island afloat."

The islands' remoteness was complicating clean-up efforts. Tristan da Cunha is usually accessible only by boats that sail nine times a year from Cape Town. Nightingale Island has no fresh water, so the penguins will have to be transported to the main island for cleaning.

Although it only has a population of approximately 275 people, Tristan da Cunha is also home to some 200,000 penguins, including almost half the world's total of northern rockhopper penguins. The bird is classed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

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