de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2005). Elephants and Wildlife Escape Tsunami. Serendipity. February 2005. Page 4.
An open release article published widely in the local press, including in the magazine Serendipity. It narrates the events around the destruction of the Yala Safari Game Lodge and the loss of life at Ruhunu (Yala) National Park. It offers explanations as to how and why the wildlife emerged unscathed despite the tragic loss of human lives.
The scale of the human tragedy is so vast, the impact on the wildlife, almost does not warrant concern. Certainly it seems of almost little consequence in a tragedy which saw so many lives lost. A little comfort in the tragedy is that the Yala National Park and its animals have survived the Tsunami almost unscathed. There was some confusion in the minds of the public that there was heavy damage to the park because there was a terrible death toll of humans. However, during the four days (26 – 29 December) I spent looking for survivors and the dead, I did not see any dead animals, except for a dead fish. The park officials I spoke to also confirmed the absence of dead animals. Why this maybe so, I will answer later.
Within the park, tragedy struck at Patanangala, a bowl shaped depression where the Patanangala ridge, slopes down into the sea. This is a popular picnic site where people come to stretch their legs after a morning game drive. From around 8.30 am, people who have finished their morning game drive start to arrive at Patanangala, to enjoy the beach. Patanangala and another site besides the Menik River are two designated places where people are allowed to alight from vehicles in Block 1 of Yala National Park.
Before 9.00 am, Wicky Wickremesekera, arrived at Patanangala with his client, a lady on a Leopard Safari. Wicky is one of the top Naturalist Chauffeur Guides with Jetwing Eco Holidays. He has accompanied me on many a wildlife quest from photographing the endemic Red-faced Malkoha in our rainforests to searching for rare migrants on the island of Mannar. At the wheel was Kalu (one of two Kalu’s), one of my favourite jeep drivers, who is well versed in my idiosyncrasies as a wildlife photographer. The client photographed fishing boats and enquired as to whether the sea was always this calm? Wicky says the thought of taking a swim may have even crossed her mind.
Wicky declined a cup of tea and Kalu took only one sip. Around 9.10am, they began to drive up the slope. Wicky heard a roar and looked back to see a wall of water, wall of death thundering down onto the beach. He heard a group of seventeen Japanese, simultaneously scream. Another forty or so, Sri Lankans were also on the beach. Wicky yelled at Kalu to pull away and as they did, he saw the water go over the roof of a restaurant being constructed at the site. The restaurant roof is an estimated 60 feet in height. A ‘funnel effect’ by the bowl shaped depression may have resulted in the waves reaching this height as it swept over the restaurant which is at least 50 meters from the shore line. The timing could not have been worse for those at Patanangala. Two hours later and no one would have been there. For Wicky and Kalu, one more sip of tea, would have been fatal. Wicky could only look in horror as the waves engulfed the people on the beach.
Sea water surged into the park through low lying areas especially where there was a lagoon mouth to the sea. As Wicky and Kalu sped away, they warned away other jeeps heading to Patanangala. After the waters subsided, they returned with others to Patanangala and found only four survivors. Subsequently, with his client safely sent to Colombo, Wicky bravely stayed on with me and my colleagues for the next four days assisting in the search for survivors and the dead. Miraculously, on the 28th December, a 13 year old boy was found, still alive, by a search team. By the 29th December, the park warden told me that over 50 bodies had been recovered.
At the same time, the wave hit Patanangala, a forty foot high wall of water slammed into the Yala Safari Game Lodge, exacting a terrible death toll. Two ‘funnel effects’ seemed to happen in parallel, with water coming from the cove near Browns Beach Safari Motel and the Goda Kalapuwa lagoon-mouth creating two high velocity jets of water. Uditha Hettige is one of the Master Naturalists of Jetwing Eco Holidays. He was in the restaurant and says he ran about 50 meters before he was hit by the water which felt like it was travelling at 40 plus km per hour. In his description of events he says “……..then I was submerged about 5 feet below water and my sandal snagged on a tree. I managed to hold my breath while struggling to release my leg. Somehow I removed the sandal, but the pressure of the water was so great that I could barely move my hands. It felt like 10 to 15 people were pushing me down. It was like I was glued to the tree. I remember seeing figures of all my family members. I used all my strength to release myself from the tree by pushing with my legs. The water carried me off again ………”.
Six of the eight rooms at the nearby Browns Beach were booked by a single group who thankfully escaped by being in the park. I heard a rumour of one staff member surviving by using a can as a flotation device. At the Game Lodge, out of a total of 229 people known to have been at the Yala Safari Game Lodge on that morning, 174 people (75%) are confirmed to be alive. Some guests survived the Tsunami because they were in the park or had checked out. 9 staff (and three family members of staff died), out of a total of 80 staff members. We are devastated at the loss of lives, but thankful that many lives were also spared. I went down with senior colleagues as soon as we heard of the tragedy and spent four days working with search teams. Many Game Lodge staff joined the search and despite Tsunami warnings on the 26th, kept searching under risk. The Yala Village, another hotel, few kilometers away was protected by sand dunes and suffered damage to three chalets. Thankfully, there were no casualties or injuries. Within the park, the Patanangala Bungalow was badly damaged and two members of staff are believed to have lost their lives.
Despite the heavy loss of lives, the park’s fauna and flora suffered very little physical damage. As expected the coastline has been re-shaped. I found entire banks of sand have moved around, rivulets were running where there were none before. But the few hundreds of meters of coastline that were affected, is a minuscule percentage of the square area of the Yala protected area complex. Many of the larger trees have survived. A few smaller ones had snapped. The lagoons have many broken branches, but otherwise the untrained eye will not see much damage.
The coastline is an important habitat for invertebrates. However, very few vertebrates (e.g Mammals) are found on it. Certain species such as the Sand Lizard (Sitana ponticeriana) may have suffered losses in certain places, but would have survived in other places.
So how did the wildlife survive?
Sixth senses aside, one simple reason why animals survived is that the few hundred meters beside the coastline is an arid habitat. It is generally sparsely populated by large, visible animals, relative to the habitats further inland which has fresh water pools and grassy meadows fringed by scrub of woodland.
Another reason could be the so called sixth sense which allowed many animals to ‘hear’ the arrival of the Tsunami. The seismic activity which generated the Tsunami would have generated energy waves at long wavelengths. Long wavelengths carry great distances, which is why radio communication uses long wavelengths. The human ear hears within the range of 20 – 20,000 Hz. Many animals have a wider auditory or hearing range. Elephants have been studied for a number of years on their use of communication with infra sounds, wavelengths longer than which the human ear is able to hear. They are also known to stomp their feet and create seismic waves which can be picked up by other elephants over 40 km away. In November 2003, I remember being in Yala with Lyn Hughes, the Managing Editor of Wanderlust Magazine. A distressed family of elephants touched and nuzzled each other whilst keeping up a chorus of deep rumbles. I also guessed they were communicating in infrasound, with other members of the family. Mature bulls are usually solitary, but one bull may have been tailing the family because one of the cows were in heat. Suddenly there was a crash in the undergrowth and a big tusker emerged ‘stomping’ his feet, sending seismic waves announcing his arrival and might.
In “Leopard and other wildlife of Yala, Charles Santiapillai et al write “The feet of elephants are filled with vibration sensors known as Pacinian corpuscles, which have a structure similar to an onion, with a shiny gel between each layer. Vibrations from the ground are picked up by the feet and passed on to the brain through these sensors. Thus, they are able to detect infrasound which we cannot hear, and communicate over very large distances”.
The so called sixth sense is probably in many cases a wider hearing range which allowed them to pick up wavelengths which the humans did not hear. In a sense they heard the arrival of the Tsunami. This could have been airborne infrasounds or seismic waves (also in the infrasound range). Even noise audible to humans would have been detected earlier by animals who have more sensitive hearing. A few seconds or minutes of extra warning would have given them enough time scramble to safety. Sometimes all that was need was to climb a tall tree or flee a few hundred meters.
Animals such as lizards and snakes who are sensitive to vibrations may also have picked up tremors as the Tsunami approached the shore. Nadeera Weerasinghe, one of the naturalists of the Yala Safari Game Lodge reported seeing snakes and lizards sharing the trees which human survivors had climbed.
Birds which migrate long distances and turtles have a sophisticated mechanism for detecting subtle changes in the earth’s geomagnetism. Seismic activity could produce changes which animals can detect. But it is unlikely that birds in Sri Lanka were alerted by geo-magnetic changes. As the tidal wave struck the east and south coast, oblivious to it, I was in the Kotte Marshes, a wetland on the outskirts of Colombo. A flock of over 100 Lesser Sand Plovers and Golden Plovers, winter migrants gave no hint of impending devastation. Purple Swamphens were engaged in bitter territorial warnings. There was no hint of danger from the wildlife around me.
It seems that the birds in Sri Lanka picked up the danger, visually by seeing the tidal wave and not by geo-magnetic changes or changes in atmospheric pressure.
Uditha Hettige in his account of survival e-mailed to me wrote “In the morning, about 20-30 minutes before the tsunami hit Yala, I saw flocks of birds (Black-headed Ibis, Painted Storks, Openbill Storks, etc) flying inland. That does not prove that they sensed the tsunami. I have seen them behaving like this before due to other reasons.
I was at Yala at the time the tsunami hit the Yala area. I was having breakfast at that time, while looking at the lagoon. A group of birds (Cormorants, Egrets, Terns, etc.) took off suddenly and I knew that it was not because of an attack by an animal (e.g. raptor or bird of prey). At the same time I looked at the estuary of the lagoon and saw water coming from the estuary of the lagoon. And at that point it occurred to me for water to come this far, it must be a tidal wave as the beach is about 100m away and 5 feet plus lower than the level of the hotel. I could not see the sea because my view was blocked by a row of rooms. I stood up, even without grabbing my camera bag and shouted “Tidal Wave” and started running and everybody around started running”.
The birds probably picked up an acute alarm call from birds in the air. Birds have a varied vocal repertoire which serve different purposes. In the rainforests of Sri Lanka, one can hear the Sri Lanka Crested Drongo uttering a ‘flock gathering’ call to form a mixed species feeding flock. I have heard the same bird utter an alarm call and observed how the whole forest falls silent as animals freeze for safety. Uditha’s account supports the view that many of the birds escaped by other birds raising the alarm after visual detection. Perhaps Sri Lanka was too far from the center of seismic activity for geo-magnetism to have played a part.
On the 28th of December, I noticed one of the Giant Squirrels at the Game Lodge back in its old territory. The sounders of wild pig were back. Animal life had returned to normal. For us humans, we will forever be scarred by the tragedy of the great wave which swept away many lives. We still have hope and determination to re-build a shattered nation. Recognising the need to help the local communities who are dependent on wildlife tourism and because the damage was minimal, the park was officially re-opened on 5 January 2005. Wildlife conservationists and animal lovers can help the local communities by travelling to Sri Lanka’s national parks and reserves. The park is ready for visitors and so are all of the places providing accommodation at Tissa (and the Yala Village hotel). Everyone from safari jeep drivers, to wayside kiosk owners to room boys and restaurant waiters, need the dignity of employment to face the future. Many tour operators and clients have responded positively and confirmed their travel plans from mid January onwards. A British film crew have also confirmed that they will go ahead with their plans to arrive in January 2005 to film for seven days to produce a documentary on Yala National Park.