Now showing: the march of the penguin thieves

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The Independent Online

It began as a heart-warming documentary about emperor penguins in Antarctica. Then March of the Penguins led to a boom in penguin-watching tourist trips to their homeland. Now the film by the naturalist Luc Jacquet may have provoked the first case of penguin theft.

Toga, a baby jackass penguin, is missing, believed stolen from his home in a zoo on the Isle of Wight. Because Toga is still reliant on his mother, Kyala, for a daily diet of regurgitated fish, he may die if not reunited with her by Christmas.

Meanwhile, Kyala and her mate, Oscar, unable to comprehend what has happened to their offspring, are restlessly trundling around their enclosure, going in and out of other nestboxes in a vain search for Toga.

Born in September and weighing 8lb 8oz (3.9kg), Toga appears to have been stolen on Saturday night by a thief who scaled two fences and broke through a hedge to enter the penguin enclosure at Amazon World, near Sandown. His absence was noticed on Sunday morning and although staff thought he had simply escaped into the zoo area, he could not be found. Then they spotted a hole in the hedge which seemed to be how the thief broke in. The local police agreed.

Derek Curtis, the owner, said: "The zoo and his parents are devastated by Toga's theft. We think this was prompted by the film March of the Penguins. Someone has seen the film and decided a baby penguin would be a great thing to give to his girlfriend or kids for Christmas. But they really do not know what they are doing - Toga will die if his mother doesn't feed him." Penguins also like cool temperatures and need regular access to fresh water.

He added: "Whoever has taken him can't really keep it a secret for long and so someone will know of his whereabouts. He will be recognised. We just want him back as soon as possible, but my worry is that he will already have been taken off the island."

Toga is the first offspring of three jackass pairs kept by the zoo to promote breeding before returning them to their home on islands off South Africa. They are the only native African penguins and, with just 170,000 breeding pairs, are listed as vulnerable by the World Conservation Society.

One clue to identify Toga is his distinctive cry - jackasses sound like donkeys. Mr Curtis said: "Toga is particularly vocal and so if anybody comes across a penguin that sounds like a donkey, it's bound to be him."