Agitated elephants felt the tsunami coming, and their sensitivity saved about a dozen foreign tourists from the fate of thousands killed by the giant waves.
“I was surprised because the elephants had never cried before,” mahout Dang Salangam said on Sunday on Khao Lak beach at the eight-elephant business offering rides to tourists.
The elephants started trumpeting — in a way Dang, 36, and his wife Kulada, 24, said could only be described as crying — at first light, about the time an earthquake measured at a magnitude of 9.0 cracked open the sea bed off Indonesia’s Sumatra island.
The elephants soon calmed down. But they started wailing again about an hour later and this time they could not be comforted despite their mahouts’ attempts at reassurance.
“The elephants didn’t believe the mahouts. They just kept running for the hill,” said Wit Aniwat, 24, who takes the money from tourists and helps them on to the back of elephants from a sturdy wooden platform.
Those with tourists aboard headed for the jungle-clad hill behind the resort beach where at least 3,800 people, more than half of them foreigners, would soon be killed. The elephants that were not working broke their hefty chains.
“Then we saw the big wave coming and we started running,” Wit said.
Around a dozen tourists were also running toward the hill from the Khao Lak Merlin Resort, one of a line of hotels strung along the 10 km (6-mile) beach especially popular with Scandinavians and Germans.
“The mahouts managed to turn the elephants to lift the tourists onto their backs,” Kulada said.
She used her hands to describe how the huge beasts used their trunks to pluck the foreigners from the ground and deposit them on their backs.
The elephants charged up the hill through the jungle, then stopped.
The tsunami drove up to 1 km (1,000 yards) inshore from the gently sloping beach which had been so safe for children it made Khao Lak an ideal place for a family holiday. But it stopped short of where the elephants stood.