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Thai elephant instinct saves tourists and handlers from tsunami
KHAO LAK, Thailand (AFP) Jan 10, 2005
Elephant handlers in this tsunami devastated resort area said Monday they owed their lives to their animals' sixth sense, which also saved five Japanese tourists from the deadly waves.

"I was surprised to see my elephant and the others scream since early morning on the day the waves hit," Kirtsada Salangam, 20, told AFP, patting the trunk of his cherished elephant Thongdaeng, one of eight pachyderms at the small tourist ride camp.

"The elephants would not obey us and kept looking to the sea. I also noticed the birds were flying irregularly but I didn't have any idea that a huge tragedy was about to happen," he said.

It was not until the elephants began breaking their leg chains and stampeding towards the hills that the handlers, known as mahouts, as well as a family of five Japanese tourists began to panic and follow them to higher ground.

"As we ran to the mountain I turned to see the wave hit the shore and sweep 18-wheeled trucks and people into the sea. It was terrifying," he said, feeding Thongdaeng the leaves of pineapple palms, which is all the animals have had to live on since the tourists fled or were taken by the waves.

"At first, I thought he was scared of cats or dogs, but now I know he saved our lives and at least five Japanese tourists. I have no idea what would have happened if he didn't bring us to the mountain," he said.

As fellow mahouts cleaned up nearby shelters and an elephant mounting platform leveled by the waves, Kirtsada gestured to where one elephant had failed to break free from her chains but managed to survive even though the water swept half-way up her body.

"If she had been slightly further down the hill she would not have made it," he said.

This district was the worst-hit in Thailand, with waves pushing up to two kilometres (1.5 mile) inshore, largely destroying about 20 kilomtresmiles) of resorts along the coast.

Dozens of elephants were brought into the area to help retrieve the bodies in the aftermath of the tsunami, but Kirtsada said the elephants at the camp were too shaken by having lived through the tsunami to work.

"Whenever they smelt a body they would panic and flee," he said, adding the biggest challenge ahead was simply finding money to feed the animals until the tourists returned.

Thailand's tourism industry is expected to lose more than 10 billion baht (256 million dollars) a month because of the disaster, which claimed more than 5,300 lives.

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