Elephants get tipsy on marulas

Time has once again flown by, and yet another marula season has come and gone.

February 2014 saw a real bumper crop of these delicious fruit being produced by the many hundreds of marula trees (Sclerocarya birrea) that are to be found on the sandier, well-drained areas of Singita Sabi Sand.

A great many different animals tucked into these fruit with real gusto!

Not only the elephants, who are so famous for enjoying these smooth-skinned, large-stoned fruits of the mango family, but also monkeys, baboons, impala, kudu, warthogs, zebra…and of course, humans.

There has always been an African myth about the marula fruit intoxicating large mammals when they have consumed huge amounts of the ripened, fallen fermenting fruit.

With that in mind, I recall a sighting that we had as an elephant herd moved through the bush feeding on the fruits.

The younger elephants walked behind the older siblings picking up the fruit as they made their way and consumed them.

The older elephants seemed to be ‘teaching’ the youngsters what to eat, and what not to eat.

A few younger elephants passed by our vehicle and moved towards an open area on the road after consuming a large amount of fruit that had been forcefully knocked down from a tree that had been shaken backwards and forwards by an adult cow.

We watched in awe because the youngsters definitely seemed to display signs of being rather tipsy!

As amusing as this thought may be, in reality, an elephant eating only marulas may eat in the region of 30 kg in one day or approximately 714 individual fruits.

This is less than half of the marulas needed to produce intoxication. There have been reports of elephant behaviour that resembles an intoxicated state, but the calculations show that this is unlikely to occur only from eating marulas.    

Its speculated that the behaviour may come from eating beetle pupae that live in the bark of marula trees.

These pupae have traditionally been used by the San people to poison their arrow tips, and if an elephant eats the pupae it may cause some behavioural changes.  

Another explanation is that the strange behaviours are most often reported for bull elephants and this may be because the marula is a prized food item and they are acting defensively to protect simply the food resource.

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