Mail on Sunday (London)

British Review of Tsunami: Animal Instinct

March 27, 2005

The single greatest reason for the horrific loss of life following the Boxing Day tsunami was the almost total lack of warning that the affected countries received. Within minutes of observation posts reporting the earthquake off Sumatra, which measured 9.0 on the Richter scale, devastation had hit Banda Aceh, and the wave of death sped across the Andaman Sea and the Indian Ocean.
But some beings across South Asia managed to save themselves and almost entirely avoid the great force of chaotic nature unleashed on the region.
They were the animals and they somehow knew the tsunami was coming.
The human population on the Sumatran coast could only have learnt of the impending disaster when the sea moved out abnormally far before sweeping back as rapidly as a jumbo jet. They would have had only minutes to run for their lives. But the number of animal deaths in the region was negligible and animals across southern Asia were fleeing as much as several hours before any human in the area knew the tsunami was coming.
In the Thai resort of Phuket, a four-year-old elephant called Ning Nong was giving a tourist ride to a young English girl who was staying in the resort with her family.
Just before the wave struck, eight-year-old Amber Mason of Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, was carried to safety when the elephant suddenly bolted from the beach on to higher ground. 'I think Ning Nong knew something was wrong and was trying to get off the beach,' she said. Her mother, who in the confusion thought her daughter had drowned, later said, 'If she had been on the beach, she would never have lived.' Off the coast of Thailand, professional diver Chris Cruz was leading an expedition when scores of dolphins erupted from the sea, surrounded his boat and led him further out to sea, where he could ride the wave harmlessly rather than be swamped by it.
'If we had stayed where we were, we would not have survived,' he says.
Tsunami: Animal Instinct, a one-hour programme for Animal Planet, investigates the unusual behaviour of animals before and during the tsunami.
Initial eyewitness reports threw up some remarkable anecdotes. A lighthouse lookout reported seeing a herd of antelope at a wildlife sanctuary in southern India stampeding from the shoreline to nearby hills before the monstrous waves crashed into the area. Flamingos abandoned their low lying breeding areas in Thailand to flee; elephants screamed, broke their chains and ran for higher ground before the tsunami was visible. And at Malaysia's national zoo, animals reacted before the event by rushing into their shelters and refusing to come out.
'This kind of behaviour was being reported in news stories at the time,' says senior producer Richard Mackenzie. 'But the more we looked into it, we realised it wasn't just wild anecdotes any more. Eyewitness accounts by naturalists and scientists consistently showed that animals knew about the tsunami significantly before any humans realised what was coming.' Statistics seem to support this claim. In Sri Lanka, more than 30,000 people were killed but all the tourist elephants, deer and other wild elephants survived, according to HD Ratnayake, deputy director of the national Wildlife Department. Of 2,000 animals in one Indian sanctuary, only one animal a boar was killed.
Mackenzie is not a wishy-washy, 'talk to the animals' kind of filmmaker. He is known for his documentaries in war zones, but this is the first time he has put together a programme about animals. He asserts that his findings are 'no Doctor Dolittle-type thing'. Steve Cocklin, his director of photography, won an Emmy for a documentary he made with Mackenzie on Afghanistan (Afghanistan Revealed) and also worked with him on a film called Inside Special Forces, about the American military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan.
'I'm definitely a cynic,' he admits. 'But I think there is something for us humans to learn from this. Experts tell us that through the soles of their feet elephants and other animals can sense rumbling in the ground, vibrations that human beings don't feel,' he says.
Biologist Dr Mike Heithaus explains: 'Wild animals are extremely sensitive.
They've got excellent hearing and they probably heard the killer waves coming in the distance. There's also vibration. And there may have been changes in the air pressure which alerted animals and made them move to safer ground.'
Oceanographer George Pararas-Carayannis, head of the Tsunami Society, adds, 'It appears a lot of animals have sensory organs that detect these micro-tremors and micro-changes that we cannot possibly monitor.' Mackenzie hesitates to call such abilities a 'sixth sense'. However, he says, 'It's certainly extraordinary that senses and instincts on the part of animals are far more sophisticated than any manmade warning system.' The South Asian tsunami is, says Mackenzie, the most recent example of such animal behaviour on record. Little research on this kind of behaviour has been done because it is by nature difficult to capture and record although there have always been examples of it.
In 1975 residents of Haicheng, China, were evacuated before an earthquake measuring 7.3 on the Richter scale hit because officials had noticed strange animal behaviour several days before the quake. Author and animal disaster expert Diana L Guerrero says that studies on the phenomenon go back more than 2,000 years.
Empirical evidence this year has been significant. From birds and hermit crabs to buffalo and elephants, Mackenzie's team sought out animals that had reportedly displayed strange behaviour before the tsunami across South Asia.
The elephants in Khao Lak, the hardest-hit area in Thailand, had apparently trumpeted in fear three hours before the earthquake struck, hundreds of miles away. They sounded the alarm again an hour after the quake but significantly, before the wave had hit.
At the fishing village of San Suk, birds started a frantic squawking.
Villagers took heed and ran, and all 1,000 escaped unharmed.
'One thing is sure,' says Mackenzie. 'While people died in horrific numbers, there were often situations where animals in the same area were not killed. In Yala National Park in Sri Lanka, there were no signs of animals dying in large numbers, yet people died there in huge numbers.' In Thailand, elephants were used to save lives after the disaster in search-and-rescue missions, as they could bulldoze their way into damaged sites that heavy machinery could not reach. But could animals ever be used in a more anticipatory way, their instincts being harnessed to help humans predict natural disasters? The minutes of extra time apparently afforded animals in the recent tsunami could have been crucial to their human counterparts.
'Even seconds in a situation like that could without question have meant the difference between life and death,' says Mackenzie. 'I guess the lesson is that we have to take the animals more seriously and not be afraid to wonder what they're doing, why they're doing it and what they might be trying to tell us.'

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