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The honorable elephant

A Times Editorial
Published January 10, 2005

The role elephants are playing in the recovery from Asia's tsunami disaster provide a lesson about our abiding connection to the natural world despite modern technology. In Thailand, where elephants once were relied on as beasts of burden, the huge but sensitive animals have largely been replaced by modern machines. Now, only elephants can reach some remote disaster sites and do the sad but strenuous work of retrieving the dead.

When the tsunami swept over Phang Nga Province, a popular resort area, bodies were carried a mile inland and left in dense forests. "We need elephant power because there are things we can't move, places where heavy equipment can't go," Siriwan Phakphin, whose search team recovered 80 bodies in a week, told the New York Times .

Plai Sudor, a 30-year-old elephant, illustrated the point. Although sinking in mud, it easily pushed a car aside and revealed another victim, then carried the body out on its tusks. The animals have proved to be more adept at finding bodies than even specially trained dogs. Phakphin called it a "two for one" benefit. "The elephant can help find bodies, (then) they can also help move bodies through the jungle."

Despite their intimidating size, elephants have elaborate family structures - with mothers, aunts and sisters helping raise baby elephants - and refined senses. That latter attribute was displayed just minutes before the tsunami hit, when elephants - some with tourists still clinging to their backs - broke free and headed inland. While the rushing water claimed at least 150,000 human lives, few animals drowned. Some explain that phenomenon by saying animals react to sounds or vibrations that aren't heard or felt by humans.

Whatever the explanation, there is still much to learn from nature. Perhaps one day, animals could provide an early-warning system to impending disasters. In the meantime, we should be grateful to the elephants, who have treated us with greater kindness than we have them.

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