MAASAI MARA, Kenya (Reuters) - Some 15,000 wildebeest have drowned in the Mara river during their annual migration between Tanzania and Kenya, shocking tourists and baffling conservationists, officials said on Wednesday.
The mass death of the animals was the first of its kind in recent memory, officials said, and struck during peak season at the globally renowned Maasai Mara Game Reserve, which attracts some 300,000 tourists each year.
The carcasses of wildebeest rotting since last week are being picked over by Maribu storks, vultures, crocodiles and other scavengers.
Some visitors clutch handkerchiefs to their faces to cope with the smell as they take pictures of the pileup of corpses.
“It was a strong tide that swept them away,” said Mara administrative official, Sarisa Nkadaru, adding that most wildebeest died when they were stepped on by others.
Some officials blame the destruction of the nearby Mau forest for changing weather patterns and affecting tide levels, and they called on the government to curb the deforestation.
“Had the forest not been destroyed, the speed of water in the river would have been checked and the wildebeest would not have been swept away,” local conservationist Doris Ombara said.
“We have raised alarm over the dangers of the destruction and what was witnessed last weekend is one of them,” she said.
But fears that tourists would be put off by the deaths were rejected by the reserve’s senior game warden, Michael Koikai. He said that although 15,000 was a huge loss, it was still a tiny percentage of the total.
“This incident happened while peak season is still on, but it has not affected it as there are more than 5 million wildebeest in the Mara-Serengeti eco-system,” Kokkai said.
Peak season begins in July and ends in late October when the wildebeest migrate back to Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.