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?
Filed under General Nature Wilderness teachings Wildlife
This is interesting Rob. I have never seen elephants eating euphorbia, although in Kruger I have seen them walking amongst the plants. I can only think that it is because of the drought that they are doing this.
Always great to see a post from you….the perspective you bring is wonderful!
Rob, I have never seen a euphorbia before – maybe when we are there in 2020!
I agree that perhaps it’s the drought that has caused the elephants to do this unexpected eating behavior. But what strikes me the most is the difference between the animal and human digestive systems, and what it can and can not tolerate. SO toxic to humans on various levels….even breathing it in. Very interesting!
It does look like the bush is extremely dry, with very little to eat … never seen anything eating the euphorbia trees.
Quite remarkable – as was “The Gods Must be Crazy”!
I read this with great interest as it seems a number of species have had to adapt to a different diet in light of global warming and subsequent droughts. The most fascinating is that animals have a greater ability to adapt their diet more easily than humans…. is their digestive system more adaptable to uncommon or potentially poisonous foods than humans, rendering us less likely to cope without “normal food”?!
This sounds a tad nervous making! I hope that whoever they are eating a toxic tree will not result in harm to large quantities of elephants!! Victoria
From the video it seems to be quite popular. We’ve never seen that before either.