Weather Warfare


Why did so many animals escape December's tsunami? 

by Rupert Sheldrake 

Many animals escaped the great Asian tsunami on Boxing Day, 2004. Elephants in Sri Lanka and Sumatra moved to high ground before the giant waves struck; they did they same in Thailand, trumpeting before they did so. According to a villager in Bang Koey, Thailand, a herd of buffalo were grazing by the beach when they “suddenly lifted their heads and looked out to sea, ears standing upright.” They turned and stampeded up the hill, followed by bewildered villagers, whose live were thereby saved. At Ao Sane beach, near Phuket, dogs ran up to the hill tops, and at Galle in Sri Lanka, dog owners were puzzled by the fact that their animals refused to go for their usual morning walk on the beach. In Cuddalore District in South India, buffaloes, goats and dogs escaped, and so did a nesting colony of flamingos that flew to higher ground. In the Andaman Islands “stone age” tribal groups moved away from the coast before the disaster, alerted by the behaviour of animals. 

How did they know? The usual speculation is that the animals picked up tremors caused by the under-sea earthquake. This explanation seems to me unconvincing. There would have been tremors all over South East Asia, not just in the afflicted coastal areas. And if animals can predict earthquake-related disasters by sensing slight tremors, why can’t seismologists do so? 

Animals also seem to know when other kinds of calamities are about to strike. In my recent book The Sense of Being Stared At, I summarize a large body of evidence for unusual animal behaviour before earthquakes, including recent earthquakes in California, the 1995 Kobe earthquake in Japan and the 1997 earthquake in Assisi, Italy. In all cases there were many reports of wild and domesticated animals behaving in fearful, anxious, or unusual ways several hours hours or even days before the earthquakes struck. The same is true of the 1999 earthquake in Turkey, with its epicenter near Izmit. Dogs were howling for hours before the earthquake, and many cats and birds were behaving unusually.

On February 28, 2001, a 6.8-magnitude quake struck the Seattle area, and once again animals behaved unusually beforehand. Some cats were said to be hiding for no apparent reason up to 12 hours before the earthquake; others were behaving in an anxious way or “freaking out” an hour or two before; some dogs were barking “frantically” before the earthquake struck; and goats and other animals were showing obvious signs of fear. 

No one knows how some animals sense earthquakes coming. Perhaps they pick up subtle sounds or vibrations in the earth; maybe they respond to subterranean gases released prior to earthquakes, or react to changes in the Earth’s electrical field. They may also sense in advance what is about to happen in a way that lies beyond current scientific understanding, through some kind of presentiment. 

Animals can also anticipate man-made catastrophes such as air raids. In my book Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home, I describe how during the Second World War, many families in Britain and Germany relied on their pets’ behaviour to warn them of impending air raids, before official warnings were given. These warnings occurred when enemy planes were still hundreds of miles away, long before the animals could have heard them coming. Some dogs in London even anticipated the explosion of German V-2 rockets. These missiles were supersonic and hence could not have been heard in advance. 

Unusual animal behaviour also occurs before avalanches. On February 23, 1999, an avalanche devastated the Austrian village of Galtur in the Tyrol, killing dozens of people. The previous day, the chamois (small goat-like antelopes) came down from the mountains into the valleys, something they never usually do. Through surveys in alpine villages in Austria and Switzerland, I found that the animals most likely to anticipate avalanches are chamois and ibexes, and also dogs. Although it is still unexplained, this ability would obviously be of survival value in mountain animals, and would be favored by natural selection. 

With very few exceptions, the ability of animals to anticipate disasters has been ignored by Western scientists, who dismiss stories of animal anticipations as anecdotal or superstitious. By contrast, since the 1970s, in earthquake-prone areas of China, the authorities have encouraged people to report unusual animal behaviour, and Chinese scientists have an impressive track record in predicting earthquakes. In several cases they issued warnings that enabled cities to be evacuated hours before devastating earthquakes struck, saving tens of thousands of lives. 

By paying attention to unusual animal behaviour, as the Chinese do, earthquake warning systems might be feasible in California, Greece, Turkey, Japan and elsewhere. Millions of pet owners and farmers in earthquake-prone areas could be asked to take part in this project through the media. They could be told what kinds of behaviour their pets and other animals might show if an earthquake were imminent - in general, signs of anxiety or fear. If people noticed these signs or any other unusual behaviour, they would immediately call a telephone hot line with a memorable number - in California, say, 1-800-PET QUAKE. Or they could send a message on the Internet. 

A computer system would analyze the places of origin of the incoming calls. If there were an unusual number of calls it would sound an alarm, and display on a map the places from which the calls were coming. There would probably be a background of false alarms from people whose pets were sick, for example, and there might also be scattered hoax calls. But if there was a sudden surge of calls from a particular region, this could indicate that an earthquake was imminent. The same principles would apply to tsunamis. 

To explore the potential for animal-based warning systems would cost a small fraction of current earthquake and tsunami research. By doing this research we would be sure to learn something, and could probably save many lives. 

At present, many millions of pounds are being allocated for setting up tsunami warning systems. I hope that those responsible for spending this money will not ignore what animals can tell us.

The Sense of Being Stared At and Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home, are available from this website
US and Canada 
UK and Ireland 


Khao Lak: Tsunami Elephant story
2.24.2006 Thailand 

Of course being in Thailand I couldn't escape without a mandatory elephant ride. The part of Thailand I made home is called Khao Lak. Khao Lak sustained 78% of Thailand's damage from the tsunami.

During our elephant ride in the hills we stopped at a spot to swim under a waterfall. Our guide told us a story about how at 3am the morning of the tsunami the elephants (the 3 of them) in the elephant camp started screaming. And they screamed and screamed and screamed and screamed... by 6am the local villagers started complaining. When they went to check on the elephants they were desperately trying to climb up the mountain.


Elephants and Wildlife in Sri Lanka Escape Asian Tsunami
Credit: © World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF Malaysia) 

Elephants and Wildlife in Sri Lanka Escape Asian Tsunami

A special report on Sri Lankan wildlife after the tsunami, GEHAN DE SILVA tells us about Yala National Park and the impacts on animals and the tourism industry.

Impact of Tsunami on Yala National park

The scale of the human tragedy is so vast, the impact on the wildlife, almost does not warrant concern. Certainly it seems of almost little consequence in a tragedy which saw so many lives lost. A little comfort in the tragedy is that the Yala National Park and its animals have survived the Tsunami almost unscathed. There was some confusion in the minds of the public that there was heavy damage to the park because there was a terrible death toll of humans. However, during the four days (26 - 29 December) I spent looking for survivors and the dead, I did not see any dead animals, except for a dead fish. The park officials I spoke to also confirmed the absence of dead animals. Why this maybe so, I will answer later.

Within the park, tragedy struck at Patanangala, a bowl shaped depression where the Patanangala ridge, slopes down into the sea. This is a popular picnic site where people come to stretch their legs after a morning game drive. From around 8.30 am, people who have finished their morning game drive start to arrive at Patanangala, to enjoy the beach. Patanangala and another site besides the Menik River are two designated places where people are allowed to alight from vehicles in Block 1 of Yala National Park.

Before 9.00 am, Wicky Wickremesekera, arrived at Patanangala with his client, a lady on a Leopard Safari. Wicky is one of the top Naturalist Chauffeur Guides with Jetwing Eco Holidays. He has accompanied me on many a wildlife quest from photographing the endemic Red-faced Malkoha in our rainforests to searching for rare migrants on the island of Mannar. At the wheel was Kalu (one of two Kalu's), one of my favourite jeep drivers, who is well versed in my idiosyncrasies as a wildlife photographer. The client photographed fishing boats and enquired as to whether the sea was always this calm? Wicky says the thought of taking a swim may have even crossed her mind.

Wicky declined a cup of tea and Kalu took only one sip. Around 9.10am, they began to drive up the slope. Wicky heard a roar and looked back to see a wall of water, wall of death thundering down onto the beach. He heard a group of seventeen Japanese, simultaneously scream. Another forty or so, Sri Lankans were also on the beach. Wicky yelled at Kalu to pull away and as they did, he saw the water go over the roof of a restaurant being constructed at the site. The restaurant roof is an estimated 60 feet in height. A 'funnel effect' by the bowl shaped depression may have resulted in the waves reaching this height as it swept over the restaurant which is at least 50 meters from the shore line. The timing could not have been worse for those at Patanangala. Two hours later and no one would have been there. For Wicky and Kalu, one more sip of tea, would have been fatal. Wicky could only look in horror as the waves engulfed the people on the beach.

Sea water surged into the park through low lying areas especially where there was a lagoon mouth to the sea. As Wicky and Kalu sped away, they warned away other jeeps heading to Patanangala. After the waters subsided, they returned with others to Patanangala and found only four survivors. Subsequently, with his client safely sent to Colombo, Wicky bravely stayed on with me and my colleagues for the next four days assisting in the search for survivors and the dead. Miraculously, on the 28th December, a 13 year old boy was found, still alive, by a search team. By the 29th December, the park warden told me that over 50 bodies had been recovered.

At the same time, the wave hit Patanangala, a forty foot high wall of water slammed into the Yala Safari Game Lodge, exacting a terrible death toll.

Two 'funnel effects' seemed to happen in parallel, with water coming from the cove near Brown Beach Safari Motel and the Goda Kalapuwa lagoon-mouth creating two high velocity jets of water. Uditha Hettige is one of the Master Naturalists of Jetwing Eco Holidays. He was in the restaurant and says he ran about 50 meters before he was hit by the water which felt like it was travelling at 40 plus km per hour. In his description of events he says "........then I was submerged about 5 feet below water and my sandal snagged on a tree. I managed to hold my breath while struggling to release my leg. Somehow I removed the sandal, but the pressure of the water was so great that I could barely move my hands. It felt like 10 to 15 people were pushing me down. It was like I was glued to the tree. I remember seeing figures of all my family members. I used all my strength to release myself from the tree by pushing with my legs. The water carried me off again ........."

Six of the eight rooms at the nearby Browns Beach were booked by a single group who thankfully escaped by being in the park. I heard a rumour of one staff member surviving by using a can as a flotation device. At the Game Lodge, out of a total of 229 people known to have been at the Yala Safari Game Lodge on that morning, 174 people (75%) are confirmed to be alive. Some guests survived the Tsunami because they were in the park or had checked out. 9 staff (and three family members of staff died), out of a total of 80 staff members. We are devastated at the loss of lives, but thankful that many lives were also spared. I went down with senior colleagues as soon as we heard of the tragedy and spent four days working with search teams. Many Game Lodge staff joined the search and despite Tsunami warnings on the 26th, kept searching under risk. The Yala Village, another hotel, few kilometers away was protected by sand dunes and suffered damage to three chalets. Thankfully, there were no casualties or injuries. Within the park, the Patanangala Bungalow was badly damaged and two members of staff are believed to have lost their lives.

Despite the heavy loss of lives, the park's fauna and flora suffered very little physical damage. As expected the coastline has been re-shaped. I found entire banks of sand have moved around, rivulets were running where there was none before. But the few hundreds of meters of coastline that were affected, is a minuscule percentage of the square area of the Yala protected area complex. Many of the larger trees have survived. A few smaller ones had snapped. The lagoons have many broken branches, but otherwise the untrained eye will not see much damage.

The coastline is an important habitat for invertebrates. However, very few vertebrates (e.g Mammals) are found on it. Certain species such as the Sand Lizard (Sitana ponticeriana) may have suffered losses in certain places, but would have survived in other places.

So how did the wildlife survive?

Sixth senses aside, one simple reason why animals survived is that the few hundred meters beside the coastline is an arid habitat. It is generally sparsely populated by large, visible animals, relative to the habitats further inland which has fresh water pools and grassy meadows fringed by scrub of woodland.

Another reason could be the so called sixth sense which allowed many animals to 'hear' the arrival of the Tsunami. The seismic activity which generated the Tsunami would have generated energy waves at long wavelengths. Long wavelengths carry great distances, which is why radio communication uses long wavelengths. The human ear hears within the range of 20 - 20,000 Hz. Many animals have a wider auditory or hearing range. Elephants have been studied for a number of years on their use of communication with infra sounds, wavelengths longer than which the human ear is able to hear. They are also known to stomp their feet and create seismic waves which can be picked up by other elephants over 40 km away. In November 2003, I remember being in Yala with Lyn Hughes, the Managing Editor of Wanderlust Magazine. A distressed family of elephants touched and nuzzled each other whilst keeping up a chorus of deep rumbles. I also guessed they were communicating in infrasound, with other members of the family. Mature bulls are usually solitary, but one bull may have been tailing the family because one of the cows were in heat. Suddenly there was a crash in the undergrowth and a big tusker emerged 'stomping' his feet, sending seismic waves announcing his arrival and might.

In "Leopard and other wildlife of Yala, Charles Santiapillai et al write "The feet of elephants are filled with vibration sensors known as Pacinian corpuscles, which have a structure similar to an onion, with a shiny gel between each layer. Vibrations from the ground are picked up by the feet and passed on to the brain through these sensors. Thus, they are able to detect infrasound which we cannot hear, and communicate over very large distances".

The so called sixth sense is probably in many cases a wider hearing range which allowed them to pick up wavelengths which the humans did not hear. In a sense they heard the arrival of the Tsunami. This could have been airborne infrasounds or seismic waves (also in the infrasound range). Even noise audible to humans would have been detected earlier by animals who have more sensitive hearing. A few seconds or minutes of extra warning would have given them enough time scramble to safety. Sometimes all that was need was to climb a tall tree or flee a few hundred meters.

Animals such as lizards and snakes who are sensitive to vibrations may also have picked up tremors as the Tsunami approached the shore. Nadeera Weerasinghe, one of the naturalists of the Yala Safari Game Lodge reported seeing snakes and lizards sharing the trees which human survivors had climbed.

Birds which migrate long distances and turtles have a sophisticated mechanism for detecting subtle changes in the earth's geomagnetism. Seismic activity could produce changes which animals can detect. But it is unlikely that birds in Sri Lanka were alerted by geo-magnetic changes. As the tidal wave struck the east and south coast, oblivious to it, I was in the Kotte Marshes, a wetland on the outskirts of Colombo. A flock of over 100 Lesser Sand Plovers and Golden Plovers, winter migrants gave no hint of impending devastation. Purple Swamphens were engaged in bitter territorial warnings. There was no hint of danger from the wildlife around me.

It seems that the birds in Sri Lanka picked up the danger, visually by seeing the tidal wave and not by geo-magnetic changes or changes in atmospheric pressure.

Uditha Hettige in his account of survival e-mailed to me wrote "In the morning, about 20-30 minutes before the tsunami hit Yala, I saw flocks of birds (Black-headed Ibis, Painted Storks, Openbill Storks, etc) flying inland. That does not prove that they sensed the tsunami. I have seen them behaving like this before due to other reasons.

I was at Yala at the time the tsunami hit the Yala area. I was having breakfast at that time, while looking at the lagoon. A group of birds (Cormorants, Egrets, Terns, etc.) took off suddenly and I knew that it was not because of an attack by an animal (e.g. raptor or bird of prey). At the same time I looked at the estuary of the lagoon and saw water coming from the estuary of the lagoon. And at that point it occurred to me for water to come this far, it must be a tidal wave as the beach is about 100m away and 5 feet plus lower than the level of the hotel. I could not see the sea because my view was blocked by a row of rooms. I stood up, even without grabbing my camera bag and shouted "Tidal Wave" and started running and everybody around started running".

The birds probably picked up an acute alarm call from birds in the air. Birds have a varied vocal repertoire which serve different purposes. In the rainforests of Sri Lanka, one can hear the Sri Lanka Crested Drongo uttering a 'flock gathering' call to form a mixed species feeding flock. I have heard the same bird utter an alarm call and observed how the whole forest falls silent as animals freeze for safety. Uditha's account supports the view that many of the birds escaped by other birds raising the alarm after visual detection. Perhaps Sri Lanka was too far from the center of seismic activity for geo-magnetism to have played a part.

On the 28th of December, I noticed one of the Giant Squirrels at the Game Lodge back in its old territory. The sounders of wild pig were back. Animal life had returned to normal. For us humans, we will forever be scarred by the tragedy of the great wave which swept away many lives. We still have hope and determination to re-build a shattered nation. Recognising the need to help the local communities who are dependent on wildlife tourism and because the damage was minimal, the park was officially re-opened on 5 January 2005. Wildlife conservationists and animal lovers can help the local communities by travelling to Sri Lanka's national parks and reserves. The park is ready for visitors and so are all of the places providing accommodation at Tissa (and the Yala Village hotel). Everyone from safari jeep drivers, to wayside kiosk owners to room boys and restaurant waiters, need the dignity of employment to face the future. Many tour operators and clients have responded positively and confirmed their travel plans from mid January onwards. A British film crew have also confirmed that they will go ahead with their plans to arrive in January 2005 to film for seven days to produce a documentary on Yala National Park.

Re-building Sri Lanka ... tourists are stil coming back

On the 26th of December, I travelled with senior colleagues to join rescue teams who were searching for survivors and the dead. By the fourth day (30th December), many of the dead had been buried and the thoughts of the local communities turned to their future. They don't want to live off relief aid. Many people from park staff to jeep drivers to wayside kiosk owners asked me to re-start business as soon as possible. They repeatedly said that the best way we can help is to bring tourists back and re-start the local economy.

Many tour operator and embassies did ask tourists in the affected coastal areas to evacuate the island. However some tourists did stay on as they were not hindering relief efforts and knew that by staying on, they were bringing in much needed money to the economy. The media, especially television coverage may lend the impression that the entire island is devastated or at least that all of coastal tourism is destroyed. This is clearly not so. Certainly some hotels on the coast have been badly damaged or destroyed. But many are fully operational. On Monday 3 January, Darshana Cabraal (Manager, Jetwing Travels) and I visited Negombo with a television crew from Vanguard (producers of Lanka Business Report, Lanka Business Online, Lanka Viyaparika Puwath).

The people interviewed by the TV crew and journalists who came included Sergei Solourier (17 years) with his family from St Petersburg, Tony Andrews and Hilary Mayes from Yorkshire in the UK, Anders & Karen Romare from Sweden with their three lovely children Emil, Anton and Limea. They had all been in Sri Lanka at the time of the Tsuanami and had decided to stay on. They all said that they felt safe and comfortable in Negombo and that they knew by staying on they were helping the people. The same sentiments were echoed by Vijaya Bhudia and her family members. Some of her family had travelled to Mumbai from London and satisfied that Sri Lanka was ready for visitors, flew down after the Tsunami.

Reiner Stein from near Hedileberg in Germany and his friends were amongst those interviewed who flew down after the Tsunami, on the 1st January in his case. Ettoire Fontaine from Milan, is a regular visitor to Negombo who was not prepared to leave Sri Lanka. We were all struck by the number of tourists who were sunbathing or having meals at The Beach. Negombo is remarkably un-affected.

A few days earlier (Sunday 2 Janauary 2005) I travelled to Galle with media as well. At the Blue Water Hotel in Wadduwa we met Lisa Hickerton from London with her family. The family had opted to stay and had also offered their services for local relief work. The road to Galle had been cleared and one damaged bridge had been re-built and was schedule to open the next day. Besides the road, there is a lot of rubble. But many of the hotels have cleared their properties and are fully operational.

The media who travelled with me were left in no doubt that tourists have stayed on and are still coming in to the coastal areas.

Tuesday 4th January saw me and my team travelling to Kithulgala to meet a group on a birdwatching tour organised by Alula Magazine and Kon-Tiki. The tour was being led by wildlife artist Lester Perera and Antero Topp, Editor of Alula magazine. A few had left the tour under pressure from concerned relatives who watching television coverage. The others opted to stay behind as they could clearly see that the interior of the country was not affected in any way. One mutinous husband, stayed back with the rest of the birdwatching group. Perhaps his wife and he can come back on one of the next two tours we discussed for 2005.

Mark and Celia Beaumont who were on another tour with Jetwing Eco Holidays not only stayed on, but popped into the Jetwing office to contribute money to the relief effort. On Sunday 2 January, they went on camera to explain why they felt the best they could do was to continue with their tour.

Many of the FIT clients of Jetwing Eco Holidays have confirmed that they will continue with tours booked from February onwards. Shiromal Cooray, MD of Jetwing Travels also confirms that they are continuing to receive bookings from FIT clients.

Specialist tour operators handled by Jetwing Eco Holidays including King Bird Tours, Sunbird, Ornitholidays, have said they will bring their tours as they know they will not be getting in the way and they know it is one way of helping the country get back on track.

Nigel Jones, MD of Ornitholidays has the following to say. "Ornitholidays have been running specialist birding tours for a number of years to Sri Lanka. Our tour starts on the 8th of January 2005. We consulted our ground agent Jetwing Eco Holidays who confirmed that our tour will not impede humanitarian efforts in any way due to the structure of the itinerary. Our clients and we have decided to go ahead with the tour as this is the best way we can help Sri Lanka get back to normality. Many areas which have not suffered any problems by the Tsunami still face economic hardship due to cancellations. The tourism infrastructure is totally intact away from the coastal areas. It is important that the country earns valuable foreign exchange from these areas to support the infrastructure development in the affected areas".

The Ornitholidays tour will be led by Deepal Warkagoda, who discovered the Serendib Scops Owl. The Ornitholidays tour and all the other tours in the pipeline will bring much needed income and the dignity of employment to many across Sri Lanka.

What I have seen on the coast and in the interior of the island is that tourists have stayed on and others are continuing to arrive. I am quietly confident that tourism will re-bound and with it help lift the country back to its feet.


This update was provided by Gen de Silva, one of the pioneers of nature tourism in Sri Lanka. They have setup a special relief fund to assist in assisting the survivors of the tsunami tragedy. For contact details

SOURCE: Wild Asia

Animals can sense disaster, they have a sixth sense, say experts
Credit: © World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF Malaysia) 

Animals can sense disaster, they have a sixth sense, say experts

Posted online: Thursday, December 30, 2004

Tsunami Johannesburg, December 30: Wild animals seem to have escaped the Indian Ocean tsunami, adding weight to notions they possess a "sixth sense" for disasters, experts said on Thursday.

Sri Lankan wildlife officials have said the giant waves that killed over 24,000 people along the Indian Ocean island's coast seemingly missed wild beasts, with no dead animals found.

"No elephants are dead, not even a dead hare or rabbit. I think animals can sense disaster. They have a sixth sense. They know when things are happening," H.D. Ratnayake, Deputy Director of Sri Lanka's Wildlife Department, said on Wednesday.

The waves washed floodwaters up to 3 km (2 miles) inland at Yala National Park in the ravaged southeast, Sri Lanka's biggest wildlife reserve and home to hundreds of wild elephants and several leopards. "There has been a lot of anecdotal evidence about dogs barking or birds migrating before volcanic eruptions or earthquakes. But it has not been proven," said Matthew van Lierop, an animal behaviour specialist at Johannesburg Zoo. 

SOURCE: Express India

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