Elephants and trained street dogs are heroes of the tsunami in Thailand
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 2005:
KHAO LAK, Thailand–Elephants, the totems of Buddhism and
Thailand, were among the heroes of both the December 26 tsunami and
“After the tsunami, reports circulated that elephants became
superheroes, snatching up people with their trunks and pulling them
from harm’s way,” wrote Denver Post correspondent Jeremy Meyer.
“The owners of eight elephants who live in a tourist camp
near one of the worst- hit areas on Thailand’s southwestern coast say
they witnessed no pachyderm heroics,” Meyer continued, “but Chain
Usak Jongkrit,” one of their mahouts, “believes they may have tried
to warn people of the impending disaster.
“Early in the morning they started making an unusual sound,”
Jongkrit told Meyer through an interpreter.
“Five minutes before the tsunami hit,” Meyer wrote, “the
elephants, secured by chains around their front ankles, began
screaming again. One broke free and ran uphill. Another also
bolted, carrying tourists.”
“If the elephants didn’t react to the tsunami, more people
would have died,” Jongkrit said. “People saw them running and knew
something was wrong.”
The Glasgow Herald, in Scotland, published confirmation
that at least one tourist-carrying elephant bolted, saving a human
life as well as his own.
“Amber Mason, of Milton Keynes, befriended the elephant Ningnong
during her holiday at Phuket and was enjoying a ride when the tidal
wave struck,” said the Herald.
Recounted Mason, who visited Phuket with her mother Samantha
and stepfather Eddie Mason, “On the day of the big wave I left Mum
having breakfast and dashed out to see Ningnong. I climbed on to him
and we started walking down the beach. The sea was right out and
Yong [his mahout] was walking in front, picking up stranded fish
and putting them in a bag. It was as though Ningnong sensed I was in
danger. He turned away from the incoming sea and ran. Then he stood
really still and braced himself against the water until Mum came to
find me. I love Ningnong so I wasn’t scared for one minute.”
Added Samantha Mason, “Amber spent the whole holiday with
Ningnong. As soon as I got outside I was screaming ‘Where’s the
elephant?’ Someone said he was dead, which threw me into a panic as
I knew Amber had been on his back. Then I saw Ningnong in the
distance at the other end of the beach with Amber on his back. She
started waving at me. I was almost hysterical with relief.”
Machinery and human muscle did most of the rescue work in the
first week after the tsunami, but Thais on the scene begged for
elephant help–even as more than 100 elephants stood idle at the 15
Phuket elephant ride facilities, due to lack of tourists. Elephants
were needed, Thai workers insisted, because they will stop and
alert their handlers to an injured person or animal, or remains.
On January 2 the Wang Chang elephant farm in Ayuddhaya
trucked six elephants
to Khao Lak to show what they could do. Arriving in mid-morning,
they “got to work immediately, after a quick shower to cool off in
the tropical heat,” wrote Richard Vogel of Associated Press.
“These six were chosen because they are smart and can act on
command,” said elephant farm partner Romthongsai Meephan.
“The elephants, all males, were cast with Colin Farrell and
Angelina Jolie in Alexander, recreating their ancient roles as
battle tanks,” Vogel continued. “Today, they mostly entertain
tourists and give them tours around Ayuddhaya, but they also are
experienced at dragging logs through forests.”
“They will be assigned to towing heavy objects and pulling
out debris,” Phang Nga official Siriphong Leeprasit said.
“In Indonesia, another 11 elephants, native to badly hit
Sumatra, were pressed into similar duty because there were few
trucks and other heavy equipment left. A TV report showed elephants
pulling a sport utility vehicle from a collapsed building,” Vogel
“Elephants shouldn’t be used,” objected veterinarian
Alongkorn Mahannop to Agence France-Presse, “because they could be
injured by nails and scattered wreckage. It
would be better to use backhoes,” he insisted.
Contradicting conventional belief about the animals with the
biggest noses of any species, Alongkorn Mahannop claimed that
elephants’ “sense of smell is not good enough to locate bodies,” but
asserted that “their respiratory systems could be infected by the
stench of corpses. Their stomachs could be harmed if they eat
contaminated food,” he added. “If they get sick, it would put a
burden on the officials responsible for them.”
But by then one elephant had already recovered a corpse,
Wang Chang elephant farm director Laithonglian Meepan said.
The elephants worked in partnership with Maklua, Makok and
Bua Daeng, a trio of former street dogs who were trained to sniff
out explosives in 2003, at the suggestion of King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
“His Majesty advised that Thai dogs can work better in rough
areas than imported foreign dogs, so I ordered the army to deploy
Thai dogs to help search for dead bodies,” Prime Minister Thaksin
Shinawatra told Rungrawee C. Pinyorat of Associated Press.
“The dogs’ small size and agility makes it easier for them
than for humans to sniff around in the nooks and crevices of debris
and the tangle of mangrove swamps,” Rungrawee C. Pinyorat observed.
“Already highly disciplined, they still needed a crash course in
sniffing out human remains, so they were trained with pieces of
“They and the elephants seemed to have good teamwork,” a
trainer told Rungrawee C. Pinyorat. “The dogs sniffed for bodies
and then the elephant used his trunk to remove the debris and get the
bodies out. Bua Daeng was frightened at first when he looked up and
saw an elephant nearby,” the trainer added, “but he later worked
well with the elephant.”
The dogs found four bodies during their first two days on the
job: two policemen, a middle-aged man, and asix-year-old girl.
“These dogs are strong,” marveled police sergeant Thongsuk Sinchareon.