for National Geographic News
The number of wildebeest killed in a deadly pileup in Kenya's Mara River this fall has been exaggerated by conservationists and the media, officials at the Kenya Wildlife Service say.
(See photos of the mass drowning.)
The deaths were caused by flooding and possibly the interference of tourists who came to watch the migration, they add.
However, conservationists who witnessed the mass deaths in September say the wildlife service has it wrong and that the number of animals killed is twice the official estimate.
The first media report of the wildebeest deaths, published by National Geographic News, reported conservationists' statements that as many as 10,000 wildebeest had died when they surged into the Mara River and could not scale the steep bank on the other side.
The news report detailed the accounts of field workers with the Mara Conservancy, a nonprofit that does conservation work in Kenya's Masai Mara Reserve, who conducted counts of the carcasses (see map).
Subsequent reports in other media outlets put the death toll as high as 20,000.
But the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) says that, based on its own counts and reports from witnesses, only 5,000 animals died during the pile-up, just 2,000 more than normally die each year during the migration.
In a report titled "Unusual Wildebeest Mortality in the Mara River" and a subsequent news release, KWS suggested that the deaths received media attention because many occurred at crossing points popular with tourists.
KWS said that the river was high because of heavy rains and that waters were higher than usual because the Mau Forest upstream is no longer absorbing as much rain due to deforestation.
Once the animals began to cross, there was no turning back, the officials said.
"It's just miscalculation of a natural instinct," said Patrick Omondi, head of species conservation and management at KWS.
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