From: Dayan Candappa, Reuters
Published January 17, 2005 12:00 AM

Senses, Sand Dunes Helped Tsunami Animals Escape

COLOMBO — Wildlife in Sri Lanka's biggest national park survived last month's tsunami, but it was probably keen senses and the lay of the land rather than any mysterious instinct for danger that enabled animals to scamper to safety.


Scores of human corpses were pulled from hotels and bungalows in and around the Yala National Park in the island's ravaged southeast, and the fact that wardens found no dead animals prompted theories that a "sixth sense" alerted elephants, leopards and deer to the impending disaster.


As Yala reopened to visitors this week, officials and naturalists said there was evidence that wildlife fled before the giant waves thundered ashore on Dec. 26.


But it was acute natural senses such as hearing that helped give animals time to flee, experts say.


The beasts also stood a chance because relatively few of them lived in the arid strip of salt flat and sand dune that forms part of Yala's southern boundary as it slopes into the sea. The dunes, reefs and mangroves may also have helped blunt the impact.


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"I have been cruising around the park for a few days now and I have not even seen one carcass, not even one of a water buffalo," Daya Kariyawasam, director-general of wildlife and conservation, told Reuters Saturday.


"All the animals appear to have fled before the tsunami struck," he added.


The walls of water triggered by an earthquake off Sumatra killed almost 31,000 people in Sri Lanka and virtually obliterated the fishing town of Hambantota, near Yala.


The belief that animals have a sixth sense for danger is an ancient one, but experts say it has never been proved.


Although that theory is likely to gain credence as a result of what happened at Yala, some naturalists believe there may be a more scientific explanation.


Naturalist Gehan de Silva Wijeratne, CEO of tour company Jetwing Eco Holidays, said an acute sense of hearing would have warned animals of the tsunami's approach. "It would have given them that crucial few seconds," he said.


Many animals are able to detect ground vibrations imperceptible to humans.


"The feet of elephants, for example, have vibration sensors which pick up and pass on signals to the brain. They are thus able to detect infra-sound, which we cannot hear," said de Silva Wijeratne.


Eyewitness accounts suggest animals had already fled or taken cover when black waves loomed over the popular tourist picnic spot on Yala's coast and crashed ashore, crushing safari jeeps and smashing bungalows to matchwood.


"One of the naturalists in the area at the time reported seeing snakes and lizards up trees that human survivors were trying to climb," said de Silva Wijeratne.


Kariyawasam said he thought the mangroves on parts of Yala's coast had cushioned the impact along with coral reefs and sand dunes.


"That was one reason why the water did not flow further inland, which would have been disastrous for wildlife," he said.


The tsunami swamped about 300 hectares of Yala, which covers 150,000 hectares of jungle. Environmental experts say mangroves could help dissipate the the force of a tsunami by slowing the killer wave's surge on to land.


Indonesia, home to most of the 160,000 people killed by the tsunami, says it plans to replant mangroves ripped out to make way for shrimp and fish farms.


Source: Reuters


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