July 16, 2009

Australian Park Officials Hunt For Penguin Killer

In parts of Australia, including Sydney Harbor, something is killing penguins.

The bodies were covered in bite marks, and their stomachs were cut open.

It is not clear what exactly is killing the penguins.

Officials are ruling out humans. The bites indicate that it might be foxes, which carry their prey in their mouths and shake it, stated Sally Barnes, head of the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service.

To the "Penguin Wardens," a 30-member volunteer group of penguin defenders that spend hours every evening protecting the birds, the villain in what they have called the "Massacre at Manly Point" is not as important as stopping it from happening again.

"It's like a nightmare you can't wake up from," said chief penguin warden Angelika Treichler, a 67-year-old retired teacher who has been watching the penguins for five years.

The study into the nine penguin deaths has moved beyond the beach to the New South Wales government. The parks service sent DNA samples to a lab, but the results will not be available for at least a week.

As they look for the perpetrator, parks service officials have set up fox bait and traps, and told residents to keep dogs shut up or on a leash.

"Really, it doesn't matter whether it's a fox or dog "” we're not going to wait for the results," Barnes said. "We're just throwing everything we can at keeping the penguins safe."

The parks service set up two "snipers," or trained shooters from the state pest authority, to kill any foxes that head their way.

This is not that extreme when you consider that this is a country that is contemplating building fences across Tasmania to prevent Tasmanian Devils with an infectious cancer from harming healthy ones.

"Australians are generally animal lovers, and I think they're also very connected to native animals," Barnes said. "So they will do whatever's reasonable to protect particularly endangered ones."

Manly Mayor Jean Hay noted: "Everybody's saying, 'do whatever it takes to protect them.'"

Not everyone sees protecting native wildlife as a reason for sharpshooters.

"Snipers?" said U.S. tourist Christy McLeod. "Really? That's creepy. They're PENGUINS."

They are actually fairy penguins, and they are the world's smallest penguins, at about a foot tall.

They live in southern Australia and New Zealand, and are uncommon in New South Wales; the 120 that hareside in Manly are the only breeding colony on the mainland, and are endangered.

Five years ago, Treichler saw a small group of penguins moving from the ocean to their nests under a beach's wooden ramp. She wondered if anything was going to happen to the creatures if they were left unattended.

Treichler started evening vigils next to the birds' nests. She continues this until the three months of the year when the penguins swim out to sea.
Others joined her, and now, 30 volunteer Penguin Wardens share the night shifts. However, the volunteers cannot be everywhere, as the recent killings can attest to.

Treichler thinks that the birds were killed during their nightly walk home. "In autopsies that were done, they had fresh fish in their tummies," she said.

For now, the murderer remains at large.


On the Net: