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Thailand's Elephants Help Recover Tsunami Victims

Raymond Thibodeaux

Recovery and clean-up teams in the worst affected areas of southern Thailand are getting specialized help from unlikely sources: tourist-park elephants.

Two weeks after a tsunami demolished many of the coastal resorts in southern Thailand, as many as 3,500 people are still unaccounted for. Most are presumed dead and buried under mounds of debris left behind by the giant waves. To help find them, Thai authorities have enlisted the help of tourist-park elephants and former stray dogs.

The dogs sift the rubble and hard-to-reach areas for human remains. In areas inaccessible to trucks and cranes, elephants do the heavy lifting. They can clear tons of debris such as cars and toppled walls, enabling aid workers to recover the bodies. So far, elephants have helped recover about 83 bodies.

The recovery effort includes four elephants that appeared in the recent U.S. movie, "Alexander."

Laithonglein Meethun, who owns those four movie stars, says most elephants are hard workers. He runs an elephant farm in Ayuddhaya, Thailand.

"In the old days in Thailand we use elephants in war...Now, this time my country has a problem. We want to use the elephants to help the families find the bodies...They search for bodies and sometimes in some places a machine can't go," he said.

To help the elephants are teams of dogs that have been trained to find human remains. Some had been plucked from the streets of Bangkok, where they lived as strays.

It was Thailand's King Bhumiphol Adulyadej who two years ago suggested collecting strays and putting them to work, instead of putting them to sleep.

Mr. Meethun, who has spent much of his life around elephant farms, says in Thai culture elephants are sacred and play a central role in many religious ceremonies. There are 2,300 domesticated elephants in the country. What surprises him is that the elephants, unlike dogs, learned to sniff out dead bodies on their own.

"When elephants walked in the forest and they smelled something they stopped. The first times we don't know why my elephants stop. After we check around, we find a body. It's a new idea to use elephants like a dog, because the elephants have a long nose. After two days, they can smell a body by themselves," said Mr. Meethun.

But not all animals are helpful. In Phang Nga in southern Thailand, authorities are using tranquilizer darts to remove stray dogs from a temple where tsunami victims are buried. Officials there fear the dogs could dig up bodies and interfere with the identification process of many.

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