Three of the seals clubbed to death in New Zealand.
updated 12/6/2010 5:01:54 AM ET 2010-12-06T10:01:54

Attackers wielding bats or clubs slaughtered two dozen fur seals, including newborn pups, over several days at one of New Zealand's most popular sanctuaries for watching the animals, officials said Monday.

Government officials condemned the attacks on the protected species as brutal and senseless and vowed to fully prosecute anyone involved.

The Department of Conservation said the bludgeoned bodies of 23 fur seals had been found at the Ohau Point colony, a rocky stretch of coastline near a highway that is a breeding ground for the animals.

Officials said eight pups — some just days old — were among those killed, and there were likely more juveniles that had died or would soon because their mothers were among those slaughtered.

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The condition of the carcasses and the wounds indicated the attackers had returned several times to the scene, possibly for as long as two weeks. The site is at the bottom of a steep, 100-foot cliff with no easy access, and the bodies were only just discovered.

"To go around and club 23 seals to death over a number of days is very deliberate and you have to question the state of mind of someone who can carry out such a cruel and abhorrent attack," Conservation Minister Kate Wilkinson said in a statement.

She appealed for assistance from the public to help track down the attackers.

Breeding females killed
The colony on northern South Island is a popular tourism spot north of the town of Kaikoura, which is an international whale-watching center. It was re-established as a breeding colony two decades ago after the species was nearly wiped out by hunting.

Numbering about 2 million before the arrival of settlers in New Zealand, fur seals were clubbed to death by hunters in the 1800s for their meat and pelts, but the hunts ended because of the drastic drop in their numbers. The midsize seals are also found in Australia and some Antarctic islands.

Oahu Point was only reoccupied for breeding in 1990, and about 600 fur seal pups were born there in 2004, said Bruce Robertson, a seal specialist and senior lecturer in zoology at Otago University.

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He said the long-term losses for the population could be dire. The attacks killed 13 breeding females, which meant 13 pups dependent on their milk would die and fewer pups will be born next year, Robertson said.

"Given this colony is increasing in size, this loss of life is a small setback," he said Monday. "However, large mammal populations cannot sustain the repeated loss of breeding females (and) any external influences can be detrimental."

Other live seals at the colony had been seen with injuries for the attacks, Department of Conservation area manager Dave Hayes said.

"This is a callous and cowardly attack on seals, especially newborn pups, unable to defend themselves against someone striking them with a bat or similar club-like object," Hayes said.

The skulls of some of the dead animals had been smashed, indicating whoever carried out the attacks was considerably strong.

"It defies me as to what would motivate somebody to do that," he said.

Imprisonment or fines
Under New Zealand law, killing or harming fur seals or other marine mammals incurs up to six months in prison or a fine of up to 250,000 New Zealand dollars (US$191,000).

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A further fine of up to $7,600 for each marine mammal killed or harmed can also be imposed by the court.

The laws have been used several times in recent years, usually against people who have attacked seals in the belief they were depleting fish stocks for amateur anglers.

A South Island man was sentenced to four months in prison earlier this year and two accomplices were fined $3,800 and $5,400 (New Zealand dollars 5,000 and NZ$7,000) respectively for attacking a leopard seal.

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