Under the moonlight, four rare eggs were snatched from their nests last week in a heist that left no clues and many questions. reports Hamish McNeilly.

This story was first published on Stuff.

Last Friday, I wrote a story about the alleged Roseneath handler. It was a weird animal wire, which I thought would take a beating. I was wrong.

Because around the same time, another unusual criminal adventure took place across the harbor at Taiaroa Head on the Otago Peninsula. Four albatross/toroa eggs were stolen from their nests and the theft was discovered during a routine visit on Thursday.

Here’s what we know:

  • It happened Wednesday night. The weather was clear; it was the day after the blood moon.
  • The eggs weren’t captured by a predator – well, they were captured by humans.
  • Albatross Center and Department of Conservation security footage has been extensively reviewed. Footage of Port Otago and nearby Blue Penguins Pukekura will be reviewed.

This Wednesday – almost a week after the theft – I had an in-depth interview with Annie Wallace, Operations Manager for the Department of Conservation (DOC), Coastal Otago, about this bizarre crime.

“We leave no stone unturned”

While the royal albatross breeding site was usually accessible by road and then by trail, it could also be accessed by water – a much more difficult prospect. The site is a nature reserve and is completely fenced, with entry only by permit.

One of the more unusual features of the daring flight is that the thief, or thieves, passed other eggs into their nests before taking the four in question. This is because the stolen eggs were taken from a location farther from the coast AND the parking lot.

“The four nests were not the first nest they could have accessed, no matter where they came from.”

Wallace said she had been at the colony with experienced rangers who were able to advise you on which birds you could approach and which ones to avoid. “I wouldn’t go anywhere near them…it doesn’t make sense to me for anyone to come in at night… [these birds] have big, pointed, nasty beaks and they aren’t afraid to use them.

The royal albatross is one of the longest-lived birds in the world, regularly living into their 40s. (Photo: 123RF)

While she wasn’t able to say if it was the work of one person or many, she did point out that the images were being edited. “The reality is that there is a range of different evidence that we work with.”

However, she was not yet aware of any footage showing a person or people in the colony at a time when they shouldn’t be. “There’s nothing tangible yet, but there are images that we haven’t started looking at yet.”

Wallace confirmed that the images that have not yet been reviewed are not from the colony, but from Port Otago and a nearby tour operator, which I have confirmed is Blue Penguins Pukekura. This is important, as it would indicate that the egg thief may have approached the colony by sea.

Approach. The colony. By. Sea.

Looking at the photo below, the ship should either approach or land on the beach, then the egg thief(ies) should avoid the various mammals that inhabit this area before climbing a fairly steep section.

Taiaroa Head, with Pilots Beach in the foreground. (Photo: Mary De Ruyter/Supplied)

Why would anyone want to steal an albatross egg?

Wallace said she was not aware of an international market for albatross eggs, nor were those who investigate these types of crimes for the department. Taking eggs as trophies was a popular activity in colonial times, “and I suspect the trade, in some form, still exists”.

Earlier this year I reported the case of a ‘Kiwi’ egg being auctioned off in Dunedin – an investigation showed it was actually a black swan. If you are interested in the pursuit and study of eggs (for research/topical purposes), or as it is more formally called “oology”, I recommend this article from The Guardian, which has the quote below explaining why “eggs” do it:

“It’s an individual trophy that relates to that person, where they got it from, and the work they did behind the scenes to find the nest.”

And here’s another description, courtesy of the Canterbury Museum, which has 2,500 eggs in its collection:

“Egg collecting or oology has been undertaken by naturalists and hobbyists for almost 350 years. Egg collecting had an extremely popular period in the 1800s, but by the mid-1900s it had slowed down as it was seen less as a respectable scientific discipline and more as a fashionable hobby.

In the Dunedin case, it seems unlikely that malice or grudges were potential motives, given that the eggs were removed and not destroyed on the spot.

But the real reason remains a mystery.

A pair of nesting albatrosses at Taiaroa Head on the Otago Peninsula. (Photo: DOC/supplied)

“It doesn’t make any sense…it’s absolutely insane”

The eggs were unlikely to have been induced to hatch, incubate for three months, and then nurture a chick before it flew away. “None of that stacks up,” Wallace said. It also means that the four eggs probably wouldn’t have survived.

It also indicated a collector, and although there were no known New Zealand collectors on DOC’s radar, there were potentially overseas markets. Wallace confirmed that those who liaised with other agencies, including customs, were notified of the theft on Thursday.

When asked why DOC took until Monday afternoon to go public, she replied, “We were just trying to figure out what happened as best we could.”

The stolen eggs represented around 10% of what was expected to be laid this season, which begins in November. Not all of the eggs would eventually fly away, and the colony could lose about a quarter of those laid eggs. But when you add this 10%, “it becomes significant”.

Meanwhile, departmental compliance officers approached contacts in New Zealand and overseas about a possible trade in albatross eggs, but “came back with nothing”.

Security at the center would be tightened after the incident, Wallace said.

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