Wit Aniwat is a mahout at his family’s elephant-riding center near Phuket, Thailand. He describes the elephants’ behavior prior to the tsunami:
On December 26th, at about 5 or 6 o’clock in the morning, the elephant trainer brought two elephants back from the forest to the camp. Those two elephants cried, felt uneasy … something was unusual. I was sleeping in the house and I heard the elephants cry. I thought, “Why would the trainer hit the elephants so early in the morning?” I wasn’t able to sleep at all, and they cried for a long time.
At 8 a.m., I came to work at the camp and I asked the trainer, “Why did you hit the elephants?” The trainer said that he did not hit the elephants; they cried on their own. Why the elephants cried for a long time, he didn’t know. Then from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m., we opened for business as usual.
From 10 a.m. to 10:05 a.m., those two elephants that had cried at dawn showed some unusual behavior, were irritated and anxious to run away. At the beginning, I didn’t pay any attention. Later on, they pulled and broke the chains and ran to the mountaintop. The trainer and I ran after the elephants and called them to come back.
What happened just five minutes before the tsunami?
The two chained elephants at the back here started to get irritated and felt uneasy; they wanted to run away, they tried to pull the chain. They pulled and broke the chains and ran away. These two [ran] away first, and there was one more here who followed those two to the mountaintop. But there was another one chained over here and it tried to run away also, but it could not. And those two elephants that broke the chain went up to the hill and the trainer and I ran after those two elephants and tried to call them to come back. The trainer didn’t know that the wave was coming. No matter what we did, the elephants would not return. … After a while there was a strong wind and sound from water, broken trees. I turned around and saw that water was coming, so I went back to the camp. I wanted to observe and see what was going on and why the elephants ran away, until the water was about to reach me. … I ran and followed the trainer to the mountain.
But at about 10 o’clock I had a group of five Japanese tourists arrive to go on an elephant ride. The elephants started walking from this point along the road and then up along the mountainside. The two elephants that carried the tourists heard the noise just like the other two at the campsite. The two elephants that brought the tourists up to the mountain seemed like they were in a hurry to bring the tourists to the mountaintop, to a higher place. At that moment it was hard for the trainer to control the elephants.
The tsunami came about 10 minutes after 10 o’clock. In 10 minutes, they could not walk far. It was a short distance. When the wave came, the elephants that carried Japanese tourists heard the noise and the trainer looked back to find out what was really happening. After seeing the water, the elephants just brought the tourists up to the mountaintop.
Do you think if humans had known that the elephants breaking the chains and running up the hill was a sign of coming danger, was a warning sign, this could have saved human lives?
I think so. You first simply observe ants: when they move their living quarters, it means that is going to rain heavily in the near future. On that day, we did not observe what it really was, what the elephants tried to run away from. If we would have known that when they cried and cried for a long time, it meant that disaster was near, of course we would not remain here, we would had gone also.
What was it about the tsunami do you think they were specifically detecting: was it sound, pressure?
I think the elephants have their own sense more than anything else. Because before dawn they cried for so long, and the way they cried was different. They cried differently from when they play in the rain. But there is no rain in the summertime. They just cried.
For me, I believe that every animal has his own senses, feelings. They have more sense than humans. From what I [have] seen, I raised a lot of chickens here, but none of my chickens died. I think animals have an extraordinary sense that humans do not have.