What Did the Animals Know
BROWNE in Hong Kong, JOHN LARKIN in Bombay, India, and RASUL BAILAY in New
Just minutes before the tsunami crashed into a southern Indian wildlife sanctuary, a lighthouse lookout reported an unusual sight: a herd of antelope stampeding from the shoreline toward the safety of a nearby hilltop.
"The man said he saw the animals on the seafront running away from the coast towards the forests," said A. D. Baruah, a wildlife warden in the state of Tamil Nadu, recounting the story of the desperate flight of the animals as told to him by the startled lookout. "Ten minutes later the waves hit. The animals had run to safety." Added Mr. Baruah: "I'm sure animals have a sense of foreboding -- a sixth sense."
In Sri Lanka, the island nation off India's southern tip, more than 30,000 people were killed. Yet at Yala National Park, just up the coast from where the destruction was most severe, all the elephants, leopards, deer and other wild animals managed to survive the mighty waves, said H.D. Ratnayake, deputy director of the country's wildlife department.
"I haven't seen any effects on the animals," he said. "They all escaped." Asked to explain the survival of the animals, he said: "They had a feeling. Maybe it was the sound waves."
Such reports add to a scientific quandary that stretches back centuries, to at least as far as ancient Rome and Greece. Can animals pick up signals that predict the arrival of seismic events? Though history is full of anecdotes about animals tuning into nature's early warnings, there is no definitive answer. And despite scientists' compelling theories on the matter, skeptics still abound. "It's pretty unequivocal that certain animals can get warnings of quakes before they happen," said Matthew van Lierop, an expert in animal behavior at the Johannesburg Zoo in South Africa. But he adds: "It's virtually impossible to prove."
In China, before an earthquake measuring 7.3 on the Richter scale hit the city of Haicheng in 1975 during the depths of winter, locals reported seeing snakes emerging from hibernation only to freeze to death on the roads. Strange animal behavior was one of a number of signals that allowed local officials to raise the alarm several days in advance to save virtually the entire population of the city, which was camped outside when the earthquake struck.
In his book "When the Snakes Awake," Helmut Tributsch says he trawled through ancient history and found evidence that before an earthquake struck Helice, Greece, in 373 B.C., snakes, weasels and worms abandoned the city. Seismic activity ahead of earthquakes releases energy in the form of charged particles, says Mr. Tributsch, a professor of physical chemistry at the Free University of Berlin. He theorizes that animals -- particularly those that live underground -- can sense big temblors coming because of various vibrations and atmospheric patterns.
Wang Xiaoqing, a researcher with the China Earthquake Administration, says that earthquakes affect the flow of underground water, the earth's magnetic field, temperature and sound waves. "Animals are more sensitive than human beings, so they feel the changes before humans," he says.
Tsunamis, on the other hand, "may induce a different pattern of signals," says Mr. Tributsch, who believes that animals may detect the sound waves they generate. As tsunamis race across the ocean, he says, they pound the rock formations beneath the sea floor. Because sound travels faster through rock than water, animals have time to flee, Mr. Tributsch says.
Even in China, where earthquake officials still set great store by animal behavior following the Haicheng earthquake, the evidence about beastly warnings is mixed. A year after the Haicheng quake, another earthquake 400 times more powerful than the atomic bomb that exploded over Hiroshima swallowed up the city of Tangshan and 250,000 lives. While scientists said they found evidence of animal warnings, the observations were in hindsight, calling into question their veracity.
Yet according to a United Nations report, in a county adjacent to Tangshan, residents were well prepared for the disaster, partly because they had noticed nocturnal animals such as weasels and rats scampering around in broad daylight.
Evidence of animal survival instincts around the Indian Ocean is also by no means clear-cut. In Thailand, on the devastated island of Phuket, hundreds of street-savvy stray dogs were caught unaware by the killer waves. Many that did survive were chased inland by Thais, who value animal life as much as their own.
"Some ran away and are starting to trickle back, but a lot of them got killed," said Margot Homburg Park, a Phuket resident who volunteers at the Soi Dog Foundation, which feeds and neuters "soi," or street, dogs. "We have seen dog footprints in second and third stories of buildings, so some did get a sense that they have to get up higher. But I have nine dogs at my house, which is 500 meters from the beach, and I didn't notice any difference in their demeanor at all. My husband felt the earthquake at 8 a.m., but there was no reaction from the dogs."
At Malaysia's Taiping Zoo, some 70 kilometers south of the city of Penang, journalist Ian McIntyre said he noticed something strange the morning of the earthquake, before the tsunami hit. The animals, he said, suddenly began behaving in a peculiar manner, with some, including hippopotamuses, running to their shelters and refusing to come out. He joked to a cousin that on the day after Christmas, even the animals were taking the day off.
Meanwhile in India, Mr. Baruah said that out of 2,000 beasts at the wildlife sanctuary, only one -- a wild boar -- had been found dead as a result of the tsunami.
"The animals are safe," said Mr. Baruah, during an inspection trip around the sanctuary yesterday evening. "We have not seen any dead black bucks at all. I am inside the sanctuary now and I can see all the black bucks and they all look fine."
Saraswathi Haksan, a director at the Madras office of Blue Cross, one of India's biggest animal welfare organizations, said there were no reports of animal carcasses in the Madras area. She didn't know whether that was the result of a special sense, or simply that their losses weren't reported.
"It's really surprising. Even on the news bulletins there's been nothing reported," she said. "Perhaps only God knows."
--Cris Prystay in Singapore, Cui Rong in Beijing and Celine Fernandez in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this article.