KHAO LAK, Thailand Chain Usak Jongkrit pointed halfway up an elephant's body, showing how high the rising water reached two weeks ago when the massive Asian tsunami flooded his camp.
Eight elephants live in the camp that sits 500 yards from the Andaman Sea. They are used for tourist trekking businesses.
Hours before the Dec. 26 tsunami, the elephants were trying to warn people, Jongkrit said. But few seemed to listen.
The elephant is Thailand's most revered mammal, symbolizing wisdom, strength and good fortune. Elephants today have lost most of their habitat, are endangered and reduced to being used for tour companies like this one.
They and other animals have been credited over the centuries for sometimes being able to sense earthquakes, storms and other disasters before humans do.
Chinese scientists began seriously studying this in 1975, when snakes crawled out of their holes and other animals behaved oddly prior to a magnitude 7.3 earthquake in Haiching.
In 2001 and again in 2004, scientists in Florida noted that electronically tagged black-tipped sharks bolted for deeper water before the approach of a hurricane.
Now, the South Asia earthquake and tsunami are adding to the speculation.
At Yala National Park in Sri Lanka, for example, few animals appear to have died in the surging water that killed tens of thousands of people in that country. After the tsunami, reports circulated in Thailand that elephants became superheroes, performing miraculous feats when the waves hit, snatching up people with their trunks and pulling them from harm's way.
The owners of these eight elephants near one of the worst hit areas on Thailand's southwestern coast say they saw no pachyderm heroics. But Jongkrit believes they may have tried to warn people of the impending disaster.
"Around 4 a.m., early in the morning, they started making an unusual sound," Jongkrit said through an interpreter.
He never heard the beasts make such a loud scream. It woke him up because he thought someone was beating the animals. He ran outside and found one of his colleagues, who also didn't know what to make of the noise. People working on a nearby rubber tree plantation also heard the screams.
"It scared them because they had never heard such a horrible noise," Jongkrit said.Comment on this story
The bellowing occurred about six hours before the tsunami hit the coast of Thailand, where more than 5,200 people died. Jongkrit now believes the elephants, which for centuries thrived in this region, have a sense of the sea that shouldn't be ignored. Some scientists think that elephants, as well as other animals, can tune in low-frequency vibrations that might precede a tsunami.
Five minutes before the tsunami hit the coast, the elephants, secured by chains around their front ankles, began screaming again. One of them broke free and ran uphill. Another one carrying tourists on its back also bolted.