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KHAO LAK: Agitated elephants felt the tsunami coming, and their sensitivity saved about a dozen foreign tourists from the fate of thousands killed by the giant waves.
"I was surprised because the elephants had never cried before," mahout Dang Salangam said on Sunday on Khao Lak beach of the eight-elephant business offering rides to tourists.
The elephants started trumpeting - in a way Dang, 36, and his wife Kulada, 24, said could only be described as crying - at first light, about the time an earthquake measured at a magnitude of 9.0 cracked open the sea bed off Indonesia's Sumatra island.
The elephants soon calmed down. But they started wailing again about an hour later and this time they could not be comforted despite attempts at reassurance.
"The elephants didn't believe the mahouts. They just kept running for the hill," said Wit Aniwat, 24, who takes the money from tourists and helps them on to the back of elephants from a sturdy wooden platform.
Those with tourists aboard headed for the jungle-clad hill behind the resort beach where at least 3800 people, more than half of them foreigners, would soon be killed. The elephants that were not working broke their hefty chains.
"Then we saw the big wave coming and we started running," Wit said.
French zoologists say many animals seem to have avoided the December 26 tsunami that swept the coastline of the Indian Ocean thanks to acoustic senses that are far more advanced than those of humans.
Aerial pictures of Sri Lanka's Yala National Park, broadcast on international TV news channels, show it was penetrated by surging floodwater.
But there were no signs of any dead elephants, leopards, deer, jackals and crocodiles, the species that have given the conservation reserve worldwide fame.
The footage adds to historic anecdotes about seismic waves, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, in which birds take flight, dogs howl and herd animals stampede to safety before catastrophe strikes.
If that is the case, the animals' survival is unlikely to owe itself to any so-called sixth sense but to more acute hearing or some already-known sense, experts say.
"In anything to do with vibrations, seismic shocks or sound waves, animals have capabilities which we do not," said Herve Fritz, a researcher in animal behaviour at France's National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS).