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300 reindeer die tragic pre-Christmas death

After reindeer plunge into a frozen river Sweden debates what to do with their bodies.

A herd of reindeer are pictured on the Yamal peninsula, north of the polar circle, Aug. 4, 2009. (Denis Sinyakov/Reuters)

STOCKHOLM, Sweden — It was bad enough that nearly 300 reindeer tragically drowned before Christmas after the ice collapsed on a Swedish river crossing.

Then a company wanted to grind the reindeer carcasses into biofuel.

Scandinavians were horrified when the reindeer — animals beloved for their gentle natures and association with Santa and Christmas — perished en route to their winter pastures in mid-November.

Villagers were herding 3,000 reindeer in the biannual trek across through the forest and then over the frozen river Kutjaure in north Sweden. The reindeer are owned and managed by villagers from Sirge, part of Sweden’s largest indigenous group, the Sami.

The reindeer walked in a line like a string of pearls. But then something spooked the lead reindeer, and the trek went horribly wrong.

“After crossing the river, the lead reindeer suddenly turned around for unknown reasons,” explained Erik Gustavsson, an official who investigated the tragedy.

Confusion rapidly spread through the herd, and the trek turned into chaos.

“The herd started to run in circles on the ice," said Gustavsson. "Pressure increased so much that the ice broke.”

Reindeer after reindeer spilled into the ice-cold water, then fought to save themselves from drowning. The reindeer herders moved along on scooters, but they remained helpless as more reindeer — mainly females and their calves — fell into the water. More ice broke as the animals tried to claw and clamber their way back on to solid ice.

“Nothing like this has ever happened,” said devastated reindeer-keeper Bertil Kielatis. “It is a tragedy in many ways, especially for the animals that suffered. To stand there and witness the animals fighting in the water, and not being able to do anything to help them, is not nice.”

The loss is difficult to measure in economic terms. The females and calves "are most valuable and will result in an economic loss for years to come,” said local politician Alf Nygard. The reindeer are raised for meat, but also for their milk, which is considered a delicacy.