Warning: This story contains images that may disturb some readers.
Kaikōura residents and tourists woke to a horrifying sight on Sunday morning after more than nine red-billed gulls were brutally killed.
The native birds, which are protected by law and listed as 'threatened' in New Zealand, were found around the Kaikōura Wharf at the end of Avoca St, by guests staying at the Pier Hotel.
When Sabrina Luecht from Kaikōura Wildlife Rescue was notified of the gruesome discovery, she immediately went to the scene to take photographic evidence and locate any injured birds that would have to be put down.
"I only found one injured live bird, down near the water on the rocks, which I had euthanised at VetCare Kaikōura," she told Newshub.
"There were apparently more injured live birds, but in the time that passed, they obviously made an attempt to get away. There were many feathers over the wharf edge, heading towards the water."
She believes the birds, which roost on the rocks off the wharf, were shot with an air rifle or similar firearm, before being either run over with a vehicle or stamped to death by foot.
The birds' bodies bore the signs of impact injuries compatible with being run over or crushed, such as bulging eyes and intestinal protrusion.
So far the death count is nine birds, including the euthanised gull - but it's likely more were mortally injured before they crawled away into the water.
Ms Luecht says the gulls were probably killed by locals in the early hours of Sunday morning.
"This was a highly cruel and malicious illegal offence, one which is punishable under the Wildlife Act 1953," she says.
"Ironically, Kaikōura is considered a tourism hotspot due to its wildlife drawcard. It is sad to see tourists - including children - witnessing such disturbing sights."
She says many Kaikōura residents wrongly believe red-billed gulls are pests, when in fact they are a native species protected by law, and are listed as 'threatened' under the New Zealand Threat Classification System.
Kaikōura's red-billed gull population (one of the country's three main breeding colonies) declined by 51 percent between 1983 and 2005.
The gull deaths are being investigated by the Department of Conservation (DoC). If anyone has information about the incident, they are urged to contact the Kaikōura DoC Office on (03) 319 5641.