Old Wives' Tales
Radio & TV
Toxin du jour
Claim: During the December 2004 tsunami, elephants in Phuket, Thailand, who had broken free from their handlers returned to the beach as soon as the waves had subsided to rescue
Example: [Collected on the Internet, 2005]
Origins: One of the miraculous stories to emerge in the aftermath of the devastating tsunami of
There were rescues of tsunami victims by tamed elephants, but they were not of the ilk described in the
About the closest real instance to the rumor was the rescue of eight-year-old Amber Mason from Milton Keynes, U.K. She was riding Ningnong, a four-year-old animal, on Laguna Beach in Phuket, Thailand, when the waters receded. The elephant recognized something was wrong and, according to the rescued child, ran with her on its back away from the incoming sea, escaping far enough inland that when the wave caught up with them, the onrushing waters reached only up its side, leaving the little girl unharmed.
A different account of that rescue is given by the animal's owner, Yong Chataisong, who says there were two little British girls involved, Amber Mason and another youngster known only as Caitlin, and the two girls were not on the elephant but were instead walking beside it on the beach.
Which account is accurate is a guess, but in either scenario, the elephant did not of its own accord rescue the endangered. In the child's version, she was already riding the elephant when it turned and ran, and in the owner's account, he directed and assisted with the loading of the children.
In Khao Lak, Thailand, elephants are credited with saving the lives of five Japanese tourists, but this rescue is even less miraculous.
So far, the elephant rescue accounts we've found have not been the stuff of legend — we have yet to encounter even one credible news story about tsunami-inspired pachyderms of their own accord plucking up
Yet the legend of the selfless elephants persists, and not just in the online world. A Denver Post article said: "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." (Keep in mind that 'reports' as used in the previous sentence is synonymous with 'rumors.')
It's possible misrememberings or unintentional exaggerations of the Amber Mason rescue fuel at least part of this spread. But if so, the employment of elephants in the
And used they were. At Banda Aceh, Indonesia, six pachyderms better known for performing crowd-pleasing tricks at a wildlife park in Sumatra were pressed into such service. After the tsunami struck, their handler loaded them into trucks and drove them to this provincial capital where they were worked as a team to clear wreckage and dig for bodies among collapsed beachfront houses. They were put to this use because of the initial lack of available heavy lifting equipment in that city. Similarly, in Thailand, elephants normally used for logging and in the tourist trade have been set to the same task in that country's disaster areas. These creatures are strong and sure-footed (the importance of the latter cannot be overestimated on debris-strewn sites), and their sense of smell is keen, which aids them in locating human remains trapped in wreckage. Their trunks are both supple and strong, which enables them to reach into small spaces and lift rubble.
Although heavy equipment has since been brought into a number of the demolished areas that previously lacked such apparatus, elephants are still being used on a great many of those sites, often in preference to the machines.
Barbara "a big help, and they work for peanuts" Mikkelson
Last updated: 31 January 2005
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