South Africa's wildlife was one of the main reasons that we decided to build our vacation home in Hoedspruit. With more than 725 species of indigenous mammals, there is always something new to discover. Did you know that South Africa has more than 725 resident or visiting bird species? Around 50 of these are found only in South Africa. So whether you are determined to spot the Big Five or instead appreciate the smaller things in life, follow me as I explore the wildlife of the Hoedspruit and Kruger Park region.
You may have heard the story already. Elephants staggering drunk at the side of a marula tree, having consumed fermented marula fruit. You hear these stories everywhere. There are even photos and videos online claiming to show intoxicated beasts. While they make for an amusing thought, the stories are, in fact, not true.
First of all, elephants prefer fresh fruit. They are known to push trees over to gain access to the fruit that is still hanging. They eat fresh fallen fruit off the ground. They don’t pick up the rotten ones. In fact they will return to the same tree regularly to search for ripen fruit.
Some argue that the fruit ferments in their stomachs. It sounds intriguing, but according to scientists, the process of digestion turns the fruits into sugar before it can ferment. Studies have also shown that 90% of marula fruit pass through elephants digestive system intact, making it unlikely that the juice from the fruit was even absorbed by the elephant. Even if they were consuming fermented fruit: how much marula fruit would it take to get an elephant drunk?
It takes 200 marula fruit to make a litre of 7 percent alcohol. That’s a lot of fruit. Would a litre of this drink make an animal as large as an elephant tipsy? Scientists don’t think so. In fact, they believe that it would take between 10 and 27 litres of such alcohol, consumed over a short period of time to cause an elephant to show visible changes in behaviour. That’s 2,000 to 5,400 marula fruit!
So what did cause those pachyderms to appear drunk? No one really knows. One thought is that the animals are poisoned by larvae of a beetle that can live in the bark of the marula tree. The larvae of these beetles have been used to make poison arrows. Another thought is that people have a tendency to humanize elephant behaviour and that an elephant acting strangely at the base of a marula tree is more likely just a lone male elephant defending his prized tree.
Still, the thought of elephants stumbling down the path drunk on marula booze is a funny one. No doubt that is the reason that this myth continues to thrive.