More than 370 penguins that mysteriously washed up on Brazil's equatorial beaches were flown south on a huge air force cargo plane and released closer to the frigid waters they call home, animal advocates said Monday.
Onlookers cheered as the young Magellanic penguins were set free on a beach in southern Brazil and scampered into the ocean, the International Fund for Animal Welfare said in a statement. It called the penguin release the largest ever in South America.
The penguins were among nearly 1,000 that have washed up on Brazil's northeastern coast in recent months, said group spokesman Chris Cutter. About 20 percent of the penguins died and the rest were not healthy enough send back.
The penguins, which had been kept at an animal rehabilitation center in the northeastern city of Salvador, were flown on an air force C130 turboprop plane usually used for heavy military cargo to southern Brazil and set free on Saturday.
Experts hope a small group of older penguins released along with the young ones will help guide them south to the Patagonia.
Magellanic penguins breed in large colonies in southern Argentina and Chile and migrate north as far as southwest Brazil between March and September.
Environmentalists say it is not know why the penguins were stranded so far north, but suggest they could have been carried beyond their usual range by a flow of warm water.
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