Australia investigates mysterious penguin killings

SYDNEY – The first battered bodies were found on a small Australian beach, the white sand around them stained crimson with their blood. A few days later, the killer struck again — this time on the nearby cliffs overlooking Sydney Harbor. The cluster of victims were covered in bite marks, their tiny tummies slashed open.

Through blood-spatter evidence and DNA testing, a profile of the killer began to emerge: Stealthy. Fast. Furry.

What is killing the little penguins in Sydney's beachside suburb of Manly? A fox? A dog? Both?

The investigation so far has yielded some clues. Officials can almost certainly rule out humans; the bite marks and blood patterns point to foxes, which often hold prey in their mouths and prance around shaking it, said Sally Barnes, head of the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service.

To Manly's "Penguin Wardens," a 30-member group of volunteer penguin protectors who spend hours each night guarding the birds, the culprit behind what they've dubbed the "Massacre at Manly Point" is less important than making sure it doesn't happen again.

"It's like a nightmare you can't wake up from," said grief-stricken chief penguin warden Angelika Treichler, a 67-year-old retired teacher who has been watching over the fluffy blue-and-white waddlers nearly every night for the past five years.

The investigation into the nine penguin deaths to date — and efforts to protect those still alive — has spread beyond the wardens to the New South Wales government. The parks service has sent DNA samples to a lab, but won't have results for at least a week.

As they hunt for the killer, parks service officials have set fox bait and traps, and warned residents to keep dogs locked 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."

This week, the parks service sent two "snipers" — trained sharpshooters from the state pest authority, armed with night vision goggles and .22-caliber rifles — to the cliffs to kill any foxes caught in their crosshairs.

Extreme? Not so much. This is, after all, a country that's considering building fences across chunks of Tasmania to help prevent endangered Tasmanian Devils with a contagious cancer from infecting the healthy population.

"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."

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

To an outsider, however ...

"Snipers?" U.S. tourist Christy McLeod, from Bend, Ore., asked from her seat on Manly wharf, eyes darting to the sand where her son was playing. "Really?"

Not anywhere nearby, she was assured. And their targets are foxes, not people.

"That's creepy," she muttered. "They're PENGUINS."

But the chief penguin warden had a job to do. Somewhere in the darkness, the killer still lurked.

A South Korean woman struggles with her umbrella in Seoul. AFP/Jung Yeon-Je