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.
Gustavsson did not predict any legal consequences. “The Sami village controlled the ice capacity before moving the reindeer herd and established that the ice would be fine. What happened could not have been foreseen,” he said.
The devastated Sami wanted to bury the reindeer by spreading them in the nearby mountains. The reindeer industry is the key industry for the Sami, who are a minority group in the Nordic countries. In Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia there are more than 80,000 Sami.
But the authorities said no.
“Spreading the bodies among the mountains is banned by European law,” said Catarina Molander, director at the Swedish Board of Agriculture.
Then came the offer from a Norwegian energy company. The Sami were shocked.
The carcasses could be milled, dried and sterilized, the Norwegian Protein Corp. suggested, and the Christmas icons could be turned into biofuel, as the company does with the carcasses of farm animals that die in accidents or because of old age.
"It will be bone flour and fat. The flour will be burned, and the fat used as heating oil. Both products we extract would be clean energy products,” said Bjarne Hagen, director of Norwegian Protein Corp.
“This is against Sami traditions. It is not Sami practice to burn bones and animals. These are animals that we know, and a lot of feelings are involved,” said Jakob Nygard, vice chairman in Sirge village.
The reindeer herders from Sirge decided to move the 291 reindeer to Jokkmokk, in far north Sweden, via helicopter, a 7.5-mile trip. The reindeer will be buried and honored at a cemetery in the city. Their carcasses have been slowly removed from the ice using chainsaws.
“This is the option that feels most ethical and morally right,” said Jakob Nygard. They will ask the government for economic assistance because the transportation and the burial space will be expensive.