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Another Way to Explore Wildlife in India – Are You Aware of this Self-Awareness Safari?

Another Way to Explore Wildlife in India – Are You Aware of this Self-Awareness Safari?
Last Updated: July 4, 2018

For the first time ever, Mammy Two Shoes saw Tom sitting gloomy and sad. She had no idea how could this stupid arrogant cat ever sit still. His eyes portrayed defeat.

And even though she has no sympathy for him, she walked up to him and asked, “What happened? Did you not get a mouse today?

“Well, I have no clue but I saw a competitor here. I have seen someone as alike as the one I saw today near the wardrobe there,” Tom said. This cat had started off with a story which Mammy Two Shoes didn’t really want to hear. But another grumpy cat in her house caught her attention. Her survival was yet again in danger.

‘Show me. Where is it?’ Mammy Two Shoes asked with her broomstick in hand. TMI

It is somehow the smartest thing Jerry would ever do. For his quite little cozy burrow, Jerry bought a new mirror and another one he bought, which is little bigger in size, to place it in front of the wardrobe. Muscles Mouse, Jerry’s cousin, actually had taught Jerry that cats are often scared of mirrors as they think their reflection as an encounter with another strange cat. They often avoid eye contact with strangers AND if they do, they react aggressively… growling and yowling or even trying to attack. But things were not working for Tom that day as he couldn’t defeat the stranger, which was actually his own reflection. TMI

‘You fool. Wasting my time. This is a mirror… understood? You moron!!!’ Mammy Two Shoes shouted out at Tom and smashed his back with the broomstick. ‘MEOWWWWWW…’ poor Tom holds tight his tail and stampeded.

So I asked myself after seeing the episode that day… can animals really recognize themselves in the mirror? I’m a wildlife enthusiast anyway but never thought whether these creatures have self-awareness like we humans have. But a human baby tends to acquire such self-awareness only after 18-24 months. Alike our favorite fictional cartoon character, TOM, and other cats in real, animals like dogs are also least bothered about their appearance in front of a mirror. They often ignore looking at themselves OR they may bark or try to invite them to play as if they were staring at another dog. But after some days they start to lose interest when their actions get no response. I tried this with Scooby, our pet dog, which is a Dalmatian, and discovered that it’s true. Likewise, amongst the wildlife, a few that we can mention here are dhole, jackal, and fox that lack self-awareness but are having their unique sniffing feature by which they can recognize other animals.

How many of you ever felt that such animals are gazing at you on your wildlife safari? Well… we often come across such situations when we try to click a snap. Somehow they are aware that you are busy trying to break their consciousness. On my last trip to Kanha National Park in December 2013, I had a feeling when taking a snap that some of the species were gazing at me. Wild Boar, Spotted Deer, Sambar, and Barasingha were few amongst such species. Nonetheless, Kanha National Park is home to several endangered animals and birds including tiger, dhole, leopard, and black buck. Well, don’t try out self-awareness experimental program with animals by provoking them… it’s strictly against their nature. Barasingha Kanha

Wildlife enthusiasts like me must be curious to find out which animals have acute self-awareness or can recognize themselves in mirrors. Researchers, after a simple mirror test, came across only 10 species including humans having such quality. This experimental process was first developed in 1970 by Gordon Gallup Jr. who observed this phenomenon in wild preadolescent chimps. However, the mirror test is not bulletproof. There are many animals who deliberately avoid making eye contact through a mirror. For example, Rhesus Macaques is one of the species that had previously failed the mirror test BUT passed an alternate and more reliable self-awareness test.  Similarly… only KOKO could pass the mirror test amongst all the gorillas. Below here is the list of other nine species having self-awareness or can recognize themselves in mirrors.


Orangutan It was first discovered in 1838 that Orangutans like all other great apes have the quality to recognize themselves in mirrors. Orangutans are also noted for their intelligence. In Zoo Atlanta, two Sumatran Orangutans have been recorded playing games on a touch screen computer. On the other hand, at the Leipzig Zoo in Germany it was found that orangutans can also use ‘calculated reciprocity’, which involves mutual exchange of commercial or other privileges. They prefer to live a more solitary lifestyle than the other great apes and are presently found in their natural habitats in the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra.


Gorilla Koko Like I have stated above, only one gorilla could pass this test… Koko other than having elevated self-awareness ability is also famed as the “talking gorilla” that can recognize more than 1000 words in American Sign Language and more than 2000 words in spoken English. Today she is in her 40s having intelligence and emotional depth as humans do. Gorillas’ natural habitats cover tropical or subtropical forests in Africa that include the Odzala National Park, Republic of Congo; Virunga Mountains; and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park in Uganda.


Chimpanzee Chimps were Gullup’s initial experimental species. It was successful when he discovered that they were making threatening gestures at their reflections and later they began to use the mirror for self-directed behaviors, like grooming hard-to-see places, picking their noses, making faces and blowing bubbles at themselves. Chimpanzees are mostly found in zoos and their natural habitat includes mostly the Congo basin.


Bonobos In 1994 these endangered species passed the self-awareness test as they were able to distinguish themselves from their facial features like humans do. Their behavioral traits are almost similar to humans and it is considered that they are also capable of altruism, compassion, empathy, kindness, patience and sensitivity. If trained they can also make sense of sign languages. Like Koko the gorilla… Kanzi and Panbanisha from Congo are two the popular bonobos having such distinct qualities.

Rhesus Macaques

Rhesus-Macaques These are one of the common species that you will often come across. They are native to South, Central and Southeast Asian countries and are commonly spotted in big troops in Northern India and the Himalayan region especially when you are visiting any pilgrimage site. Rhesus Macaques passed the mirror test in 2010 when researchers discovered that these species were grooming and examining their body parts and to their surprise they even adjusted the mirror to get a better reflection. Some of the common tourist places in India where you will find Rhesus Macaques in large number are Jakhu Temple in Shimla, Red Fort in Agra, Observatory Tower in Darjeeling and Hadimba Temple in Manali.


Elephant Thanks to Happy, Patty and Maxine who were first experimented at the Bronx Zoo in 2006. Three of the elephants were placed in front of an 8 feet tall mirror and a white cross mark was put on their foreheads, where they can’t see it without looking in the mirror. All of a sudden researchers noticed that Happy started touching and exploring the mark with her trunk thus qualifying the Mirror Self-Recognition Test. Elephants are quite common species and are easily spotted in many national parks and wildlife sanctuaries in India. Elephants can also be domesticated and are also used for wildlife safari in many national parks in North East India and South India.

Not only animals living on the land are being experimented but researchers are also trying their best out from aquatic species and avifauna. Following are some of the species that are awarded mirror self-recognition test.

Bottlenose Dolphins

Bottlenose Dolphins These aquatic mammals having large brains and advanced cognitive species are quite saucy in the blues. They cleared the mirror self-recognition test in 2001 when two such species were set out to a large reflective surface filled with water. They were marked with black waterproof ink and the researchers closely observed that they were rather witty enough with their new marks. Bottlenose Dolphins are commonly spotted in the Indo-Pacific belt that includes the waters around India, northern Australia, South China, the Red Sea, and the eastern coast of Africa. The Marine National Park in the Gulf of Kutch, which is one of the must visit places in Gujarat,is a home to Bottlenose Dolphins and several other aquatic species.


Orcas It was first revealed in 2001 that Orcas, like bottlenose dolphins, also have the quality of self-awareness. They passed a similar test as the one used for bottlenose dolphins. Orcas also referred to as ‘killer whales’, are often seen in the entire world of blues from the frigid Arctic to Antarctica and from Pacific to Atlantic.


Magpie A It is the only bird species that passed the Mirror Self-Recognition Test when in 2008 a German study placed several coloured dots on the necks of the birds (European Magpies). These birds only reacted to the odd colours by scratching the spots when placed in front of the mirror. There are several types of Magpies. The Black-billed Magpie is commonly spotted in some of the high altitude national parks in India like the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve, Kanchenjunga National Park, Namdhapa National Park and Singalila National Park.

So when you will be planning your next wildlife safari in national parks in India… don’t forget to carry a mirror. Who knows that you might be the first to discover in the wild that tigers also have self-awareness… MIRROR MIRROR ALL THE WAY AS THERE IS NO END TO DISCOVERIES.

Published: 30 Sep, 2014
Swairik Das


Brought up from the cultural capital of India, Kolkata, Swairik Das is a passionate traveller who seeks to travel and explore the length and breadth of the country. He is also a dedicated travel writer, blogger and photographer who by heart is also an adventure freak. His focus is mostly into exploring and writing on trekking, jungle safaris and several adventure activities; religion, festival, heritage, people and cuisine.

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