By ANDREW BROWNE in Hong Kong, JOHN LARKIN in Bombay and RASUL BAILAY in New Delhi, Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL January 4, 2005
Ten minutes before the tsunami crashed into the Indian wildlife sanctuary, a lookout in a lighthouse reported an extraordinary sight: a herd of antelope stampeding from the shoreline toward the safety of a nearby hilltop.
“I’m sure animals have a sense of foreboding — a sixth sense,” said A. D. Baruah, a wildlife warden in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, as he recounted the story of the desperate flight of the animals as told to him by the startled lookout.
“The man said he saw the animals on the seafront running away from the coast towards the forests,” Mr. Baruah said. “Ten minutes later the waves hit. The animals had run to safety.”
The thundering hooves of the Indian antelope, or black buck, add to an enduring scientific debate fueled by similar reports that stretch back centuries, to at least as far as ancient Rome and Greece. Can animals pick up signals that predict the arrival of seismic events?
The question has even more poignancy following last week’s devastating tsunamis because of a single agonizing fact: Unlike earthquakes, which usually strike with no warning, the tsunamis they trigger can be detected using simple wave sensors before they unleash destruction on land. But there are no such sensors in the Indian Ocean, and so the first signs of the impending catastrophe may have come from wild beasts.
In Sri Lanka, the island nation off India’s southern tip, 30,196 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.”
It isn’t clear whether anybody saw the animals bolting in Yala Park. But in India, at the Point Calimere wildlife and bird sanctuary in the devastated district of Nagapattinam, there was a witness — the lighthouse lookout. Mr. Baruah said it might be the first time such a dash for safety in the animal kingdom had been seen by humans in advance of a tsunami. The incident also was confirmed by J. C. Kala, chief conservator of forests for the state government. “Around 500 black bucks climbed on top of a nearby hilltop before the waves actually reached the area,” he said.
In fact, there is a huge body of anecdotal evidence that animals possess a finely tuned internal alert system. 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 in time to save 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, and animals — particularly those that live underground — can sense big temblors coming.
Tsunamis “may induce a different pattern of signals,” says Mr. Tributsch, who theorizes 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. Since sound travels faster through rock than water, animals have time to flee.
Within the scientific community, skeptics 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.”
Evidence of animal survival instincts around the Indian Ocean is 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.”
Yet 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.
Even in China, where earthquake officials still set great store by animal behavior following the Haicheng earthquake, the evidence 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 with the loss of 250,000 lives. While scientists said they found evidence of animal warnings, its emergence only after the fact casts doubt on its 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 like weasels and rats scampering around in broad daylight.
Wang Xiaoqing, a China Earthquake Administration researcher, said 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 said.
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.”