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Phu ki

It’s amazing how long a male can spend staring at his own reflection. Especially when it’s an enormous 40 year old Asian bull elephant called Phu ki - an animal that may have a sense of his own identity.

Phu ki is an impressive bull elephant in his late 30’s living at the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation in Northern Thailand. Rescued from a life on Thailand’s streets Phu ki and his mahout are now engaged in Dr Josh Plotnik’s science programme, helping to advance our understanding of elephant intelligence.

Josh is interested in an elephant’s sense of ‘self’. Most animals (and humans under 18 months) see their reflection in a mirror as another animal, but a select group recognise the image as themselves and will use a mirror to investigate marks surreptitiously placed on their body by researchers.

By recording the reaction of Phu ki and other elephants to their own reflection Josh is showing that elephants may have a sense of their own identity. Being able to see yourself as others do is a trait that’s been linked with empathy, consciousness and advanced social intelligence and places elephants in a select club that includes humans, great apes, dolphins and magpies.