The cactus-like plant known as the Bushveld Candelabra (Euphorbia cooperi) is a beautiful, large tree euphorbia shaped in its namesake candelabrum form.
They are quite an unusual sight on Londolozi that occur usually in small groups of five or six and break the mould of the more common trees like the Marula, Leadwood and Torchwood trees.
What interests me particularly about this plant is the toxic white latex that it exudes from any part of the tree when damaged. It is known to be harmful to humans, causing irritation when it contacts the skin, and potential blindness on contact with one’s eyes. Even when standing next to a bleeding plant one can feel a burning throat sensation as you breathe in the pungent acidity of the milky latex. To ingest could be fatal as the stomach wall and intestines may be inflamed and even become perforated.
I have heard stories of the wily Boer soldiers peppering these euphorbias with bullets so to rain down toxic latex onto overheating British soldiers seeking shade during the Boer War of 1899-1902. Maybe this was just a memory from the film The Gods Must be Crazy…
The latex has also been used more traditionally used as a fishing tool to poison small pools of water. Paralyzed fish that float to the top can still be eaten as long as the gills – that trap the poison – are properly removed.
What surprised me one morning recently when driving past a prominent clump of 3-4m tall euphorbia trees, was to see a herd of elephants standing around feeding off them.
The toxic white latex messed all over their faces and trunks as they used their tusks to de-bark the tree trunks and eat the outer layer. A 4-year old elephant calf stood with its mouth pressed against an open wound on the trunk of one euphorbia tree, as if the milky latex oozing out was milk from the teat of its mother. We were amazed to witness this behaviour and my partner Judas, who is a tracker/walking encyclopaedia of the bush with 40 years of field experience, said he had never witnessed this before.
It is commonly known that black rhinos quite regularly eat euphorbia plants. Interestingly I found out that giraffe also do eat some species of euphorbia in small quantities during winter when other food sources are not as abundant.
However this was not recorded for this species of euphorbia that the elephants were eating – the Bushveld candelabra – that is known to be among the most toxic of all euphorbia species. From what we witnessed, elephants are also capable of this as I trust a wise animal like this to know what is best for it.
Having consulted with many of the senior field staff at the lodge, many of them confirm what Judas said, and none have seen elephant feeding off the Euphorbias before. Yet it seems this behaviour is not endemic to Londolozi, as neighbouring reserves have reported similar sightings. As we continue to wait for the rains, perhaps the lack of significant food sources has led the elephants to resort to unusual means to sustain themselves, or perhaps the euphorbias themselves have greatly lowered toxin levels as a result of extensive dry periods.
I am interested to know if this has ever been recorded. Have any of you ever seen this before?