In recent weeks, three platypus corpses have been found in Australia’s Albury Botanic Gardens, a popular attraction in New South Wales. Two of the mammals were decapitated.

“We still don’t know what they’ve done with the heads,” Hazel Cook, spokeswoman for the Wildlife Information, Rescue and Education Service (WIRES), told Guardian Australia.

The Murray River, a natural habitat for platypuses, is several blocks from the botanic gardens where the dead platypuses were found. The distance makes it unlikely one — much less three — platypuses would have traveled to the gardens.

“These guys would not have got to the botanic gardens on their own,” Cook said. “There’s no waterway running through there, just a council drain.”

Cook’s agency, as well as the National Parks and Wildlife Service in New South Wales, indicated on Wednesday that humans are likely responsible for the deaths. “The animals appear to have been deliberately killed in an horrific act of cruelty,” said a statement from the Wildlife Information, Rescue and Education Service.

Platypuses are one of the stranger critters roaming the globe. Along with the echidna, platypuses are the only mammals to reproduce by laying eggs. They use toothless duck-like bills to scoop up small creatures from riverbeds, then take in a mouthful of gravel to help mash up their prey into a digestible paste. Given their awkwardness on land, National Geographic noted, they tend to stick near water.

The platypus’s natural predators, which include foxes, birds of prey, crocodiles and the like, were ruled out as responsible for the decapitations.

“You could see were it was cut, where the spine was cut. You can actually see where they’ve tried to cut into the vertebrae,” Cook told the Border Mail. “It’s very obvious it’s not a fox.”

“We would love to be proved wrong,” Cook told Guardian Australia. “We would love to think that a human would not do this sort of thing. But I don’t think we will be.”

WIRES & NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service are aware that three platypus have been found dead in Albury Botanic...

Posted by WIRES on Monday, April 10, 2017

Platypuses were once hunted for their pelts, but they’ve been protected for decades under the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Act of 1974. “It is an offence … to harm native animals and penalties include a fine of up to $11,000 and or six months imprisonment,” WIRES said in a statement.

To the chagrin of some environmentalists, though, coats and rugs made from their fur still attracts high price tags. One 3-by-4-foot rug made from the animal’s fur, for example, was valued at $10,000, the Australian reported.

But if poachers had caught and killed the platypuses, they certainly didn’t gain much from the hunt.

“We thought at first that they might have been caught accidentally by someone with illegal nets in the river but then why take them to the gardens?” Cook said. “Why not just throw the bodies in the river? And why take the heads? We still don’t know what they’ve done with the heads.”

What’s left is a mystery that has disgusted many in the community.

“It troubles me that such sick, despicable minds walk amongst us. This act is outrageous and one can only hope the culprits are caught and dealt with (harshly),” wrote one Facebook user.

“That is simply disgusting, totally inexcusable. Truly hope someone is made accountable,” wrote another.

“We are urging anyone with information on these senseless attacks on our native animals to please report it to the National Parks and Wildlife Service Office in Tumut,” Albury Mayor Kevin Mack told ABC.

The Humane Society International Australia is offering a $5,000 reward for any information leading to arrests.

“This beloved wildlife species is very rare and has the highest level of evolutionary distinctiveness of any mammal species worldwide,” the society’s program manager, Evan Quartermai, told the Border Mail. “It is heartbreaking that such senseless acts have taken place towards such beautiful and innocent creatures and impossible to comprehend why anyone would be so cruel.”

“These are just gentle little fellas who do no harm,” Cook told the Guardian. “It’s lovely to see that Australians are so upset about it — we want people to be angry.”

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