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Senses helped animals survive the tsunami

The question popped up soon after the human death toll became clear: why didn't more animals die in the tsunami? As NBC's Charles Sabine reports, some experts say they know exactly why.

As a huge black curl of wave started rolling out at sea, humans stood transfixed. But in the animal world there appears to have been a sense of danger, almost a sixth sense that something was terribly wrong.

At the Khao Lak Elephant Trekking Centre, elephants Poker and Thandung started to panic — trumpeting and breaking free from their chains. It was something their owner Jong Kit had never seen them do before.

"We couldn't stop the elephants," says Kit.

They ignored his commands to stop and ran for higher ground, just five minutes before the resort where they'd been standing was destroyed by the tsunami.

Kit believes the elephants knew the tsunami was coming.

Many experts say animals have senses that make them highly tuned to impending natural phenomena.

"We know they have better sense of hearing; they have better sense of sounds; they have better sense of sight," says Bill Karesh with the Wildlife Conservation Society. "And they're more reactive to those signals than we tend to be."

And even though the animals aren't communicating directly with each other, they are taking cues from other animals' behavior.

"If they see birds flying away, or if they see other animals running, they're going to get nervous too," says Karesh.

When the tsunami struck in Khao Lak, more than 3,000 human beings lost their lives. But no one we can find involved with the care of animals can report the death of a single one.

Goson Sipasad is the manager of the Khao Lak National Park. He says all the animals went high in the hills and have not returned. He believes not one perished in or around the park.

"We have not found any dead animals along this part of the coast," he says.

Jong Kit's elephants’ intuition was very lucky for four Japanese tourists who had climbed aboard them the day of the tsunami. They all survived, carried on the elephants’ backs to the hills.