The early-morning penguin-napping was captured by security cameras.
On Sept. 22, two men drove up to the wall of the oceanarium at Bayworld, a conservation and research facility for marine animals in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.
The men snapped a few pictures with their cellphones, then clambered into the penguin enclosure. There, they snatched a male named Buddy and secreted him into the trunk of a car.
Then, Bayworld told The Washington Post, they drove about two miles to Pollock Beach, setting Buddy free in the South Indian Ocean.
It was Buddy’s first time in the sea. He is likely to die there, officials say.
Buddy was born and raised in captivity, fed and cared for by handlers as part of a program to increase the world’s population of African penguins, an endangered species. Officials say the men who freed him likely doomed him.
The intentions of the men who stole Buddy are unknown, but Bayworld said the men came forward with details about where they released Buddy after hearing that his life was in danger.
But it may be too late, officials say.
Buddy “is completely ill-equipped to survive in the wild. He will have no idea where he is,” Dylan Bailey, the manager of Bayworld, told the BBC.
Wild penguins spend up to two years at sea learning to fend for themselves, Bayworld says. Buddy is healthy — even fat — by penguin standards. But he probably only has enough energy to survive for two more weeks.
“He is a captive raised bird that is now in a wild and an unfamiliar environment,” a statement released by Bayworld said. “He simply does not have the experience necessary to survive in the wild.”
Buddy’s disappearance is also a setback for the penguin rehabilitation project. Bayworld casts itself as a “major role-player in African Penguin conservation.”
The African penguin population has declined by 80 percent since the 1950s, their main colonies starved by commercial fishing or poisoned by oil spills, according to Bayworld.
The African penguin was declared an endangered species in 2010.
Buddy had already paired with a female penguin, Francie, according to the BBC. And African penguins mate for life.
“They are monogamous animals,” Bailey told the BBC.
Buddy and Francie were taking turns sitting on two eggs. One of their chicks has hatched, and another died. And now, Francie has to do the work of both parents.
“If we can’t get Buddy back,” Bailey told the BBC, “we will try to pair (Francie) with another bird, but it may not be successful.”
There is a vocal group that is opposed to keeping animals in captivity. An online petition seeks to remove the dolphins from Bayworld, saying the facility “is just a circus in water, and therefore inherently cruel and morally reprehensible.”
Bayworld and local police haven’t identified the penguin-nappers, but Bayworld officials were meeting with investigators to determine whether charges should be filed.
“The individuals stated that they did not agree with the penguins being kept in captivity and that their intention was to capture and then release a penguin back into the wild,” Bayworld said in a statement e-mailed to The Washington Post.
“After realizing the severity of the incident they had decided to come forward. … At the time they believed they were acting in the best interests of the animals and there was never any intention to harm the bird in any way.”
For now, officials just want to find Buddy.
“We are optimistic,” Bailey told the BBC. “We have hope he will come ashore before he becomes too weak.”
Bayworld asked the world to be on the lookout.
“He has a tag on his flipper with the numbers 2 6 6 (red blue blue),” the statement said. “We hope to reintroduce him to his mate and chicks should we be able to recover him in time.”