A lightning strike killed more than 300 reindeer in Norway’s Hardangervidda region last Friday. At their last count, officials of the Norwegian Environment Agency reported the death of a herd of 323 reindeer of both sexes, including 70 calves. Five reindeer were severely injured in the storm and had to be euthanized.
Lightning strikes have killed several animals in the past, including herds of livestock and wild animals. Early this year, a pregnant rhino and her calf were electrocuted due to lightning in India. Multiple elephants, geese, giraffes, and have also died due to lightning strikes across the world.
But the Hardangervidda thunderstorm was unusually deadly, Kjartan Knutsen of the Agency told The Associated Press. “We have not heard about such numbers before,” he added.
The mass death may have occurred because reindeer are herd animals, and tend to huddle together during bad weather, Knutson said. Officials believe that a combination of the electricity’s extremely high discharge and its interaction with the earth and water electrocuted the animals.
“First, there’s a direct strike – this is what most people think of when they think of lightning – that hits the tree or maybe the ground nearby,” John Jensenius of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), told Angela Chen at The Verge. “The energy then spreads along the ground surface, and if you’re anywhere near that lightning strike, you absorb it and get shocked.”
The agency will send samples from the bodies to the Norwegian Veterinary Institute for research. “Then we will know for sure how the animals died,” Knut Nylend of the Norwegian Environment Agency, told NTB, the Norwegian news service.
The officials are yet to determine what to do with the bodies of the reindeer — whether to remove them, or to leave them and let nature take its course.
Hardangervidda, a mountain plateau in central Norway, has some of the world’s largest herds of wild reindeer. Thousands of reindeer migrate across Hardangervidda every year. Conservationists hope that the reindeer deaths due to lightning will help spread awareness about other threats to reindeer.
“We are shocked by the extent of this tragedy,” Anton Krag, the chief executive of the Norwegian Animal Protection Alliance, told Henrik Pryser Libell at the New York Times. “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.”