Over the weekend hundreds of reindeer were killed by lightning in Norway, in a freak incident that appears to be unprecedented in recorded history.

The bodies of 323 reindeer were found after a severe electrical storm savaged the Hardangervidda mountain plateau in southern Norway, a scenic area, which is popular among local hikers and foreign tourists, especially during the summer months.

As the seasons roll around, large herds of reindeer migrate across the Hardangervidda, which is the largest high mountain plateau in northern Europe, travelling from the drier lands in the east to the mating grounds in the west. This year, however, an entire herd will fail to complete the journey, after they were electrocuted en masse during the storm. Over 70 dead calves were discovered among the corpses, and several surviving animals had to be euthanised because their injuries were so severe.

Kjartan Knutsen, an official at the Nature Inspectorate, a section of the Norwegian Environment Agency, told the media that reindeer and other species do sometime get struck by lightning, and fatalities can run into double figures because the animals huddle together in challenging weather, but conceded he’d never heard of it happening on such a scale. ‘We have never seen anything like this,’ Knutsen explained to  the New York Times.

‘Reindeer often huddle together in groups during thunderstorms,’ Knutsen explained. ‘It is a strategy they have to survive, but in this case their survival strategy might have cost them their life. The corpses are all lying in one big group, piled together.’

Experts such as Knutsen have speculated that an accumulation of water on the road, combined with a bolt of lightning, effectively led to the animals being electrocuted where they stood.

The site was later inspected by Olav Strand, a senior researcher at the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, who described the scene he encountered: The animals appeared to have died, ‘as if someone just turned off a switch.’ The air was filled with a smell that seemed both sweet and sour, he said.

‘The lightning was fierce, the amount of water pouring down that day was incredible, and the whole group was found dead at the scene, placed as they usually are, huddled into a group, with some standing in two lines on the side and a larger congregation in the middle,’ Strand continued. ‘They were standing on a hill, moving up that hill. They seem to have fallen dead on the ground, exactly where they stood.’

Had they survived the bolt from the blue, however, it’s very possible the reindeer would have been killed anyway, with professional hunters currently conducting a cull of the species, the population of which has exploded to around 11,000 to 15,000 animals, several thousand more than experts believe the area can sustainably support.

Reindeer have plenty of friends, though, and one of them—Anton Krag, a zoologist and the chief executive of the Norwegian Animal Protection Alliance—hopes the horrorshow will lead to greater awareness of the dangers the animals face.

‘We are shocked by the extent of this tragedy,’ he said. ‘However, this freak event had unavoidable natural causes and is overshadowed by the animal suffering inflicted on reindeer by human activity. Each year, hundreds of reindeer are killed by trains because the Norwegian government is not willing to invest in preventive measures like fences. Hundreds of reindeer are also wounded by trophy hunters for the sake of recreation.’


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