Cape Town, South Africa Penguins evacuated from islands off South Africa to save them from an oil spill were shot at by fishermen who feared the birds would chase away their catch, a newspaper said Thursday.
Some 20,000 penguins were trucked about 470 miles from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth and released to swim home. The operation gave workers time to clean up oil spilled from a wrecked tanker before the birds could become contaminated.
The Eastern Province Herald, a Port Elizabeth daily, citing two unidentified sources, said fishermen on at least two boats fired shotguns at a large group of penguins for about 45 minutes to keep them away from their catch.
"They were talking on the radio and suddenly someone realized -- hey, these are the birds they released after the pollution disaster, and they stopped," the paper quoted one source as saying.
Police could not confirm the report and marine authorities were checking to see if any dead birds had washed ashore.
The news came as a party was held in Cape Town to celebrate the return of Peter the penguin, who left Port Elizabeth on June 30 and took 19 days to swim back. Scientists monitored the journey via a satellite tracking device glued to his back and posted his movements onto an Internet site.
Environmental Affairs Minister Valli Moosa said the bird's journey showed its remarkable endurance, and the minister praised the efforts of thousands of volunteers who are helping look after 23,000 other birds covered in oil from the spill.
Peter arrived on his Robben Island, about four miles off Cape Town, on Tuesday, but scientists have failed to find him.
Fewer than 400 of the captured, oil-soaked birds have died. However, it will take several years for the penguin population to recover because the spill happened in the middle of the penguin's breeding season and many of their chicks and eggs were lost.
African penguins, which are only found off the coast of southern Africa, are classified as vulnerable to extinction. The population has plummeted over recent years and is now estimated between 150,000 and 180,000.