As February approaches, Marula trees are starting to produce fruit. During this period, we often notice a large influx of elephants into Londolozi (from the neighbouring Kruger National Park) in response to these fruits. Whilst out on drive or on walk, if you move upward toward high ground and scan the sandy crests, you will often be rewarded with seeing herds of elephants moving from one Marula to the next. Each Marula produces hundreds of sweet and highly nutritious fruits, which turn yellow when ripe and are often found on the ground. Elephants have evolved a strong affiliation with these fruits and pick them up off the ground or from the trees and feed on them with fondness. In fact, seldom do we see elephant dung without any Marula fruit inside it during February.
The relationship between elephants and Marulas has existed for a very long time. Elephants do sometimes push over these trees to get to their roots or top leaves but they also facilitate the germination process of the seeds. So although they are responsible for destroying some individuals, they also help to grow them. In fact, studies have shown that Marula seeds which have passed through an elephant’s digestive system are more likely to germinate than those which have not. Furthermore, the seeds often germinate in the very compost heap in which they are deposited.
Marulas are from the same family as the mango and when fermented, the fruits contain a large amount of alcohol. Humans have often capitalized on this. Local Shangaan people place these fruits into water and allow them to ferment for a few days to brew a cider and the fruit is used in the popular liqueur Amarula. For over a century there has been a wild and fanciful notion that elephants become intoxicated from Marula fruits. In fact, the French naturalist Delegorgue describes how in 1839 his Zulu guide mentioned how elephants showed incredibly strange behaviour after eating these fruits. He writes, “the elephant has in common with man a predilection for the gentle warming of the brain induced by fruit which has been fermented by action of the sun.”
But there’s just one problem – elephants don’t often eat the fermented fruits on the ground, and even if they did, they certainly don’t eat enough of it. Hypothetically, if an elephant could get access to alcohol, it would take a lot to get it drunk. Steve Morris, a biologist from the University of Bristol, together with his co-authors, calculated that based on its body weight, it would take about half a gallon (1.9 litres) of ethanol to even get an elephant tipsy. Based on that, they then calculated that it would take up to 7.1 gallons (27 litres) of Marula juice to come up with that amount of alcohol. To produce a litre of marula juice, you would need about 200 marula fruits. Simply put, for an elephant to even start to get drunk, it would need to eat 1400 well fermented Marula fruits, which is not likely at all. Myths of drunken elephants will remain in African folklore. It’s a good story and a durable myth, but I’d suggest you don’t spend all of your time under a tree waiting for drunk elephants to pass.