Do African animals get drunk from marula fruit? Or is it a myth?

African elephant shaking off marula fruits from the tree

Are you familiar with marula fruit or the marula tree? Marula is a beautiful African tree species that produces aromatic fruits about the size of plums.

You may have heard that marula fruit makes elephants “drunk.” That’s what some of the locals say, anyway, and it’s a popular belief amongst tourists in Africa.

I’ve heard the stories, and I’ve tasted the fruit. However, I wasn’t sure if it really made elephants drunk.

So, I did some research and came up with the hard facts. Here’s what you need to know about marula fruit and the tale of drunk animals.

What is Marula Fruit?

Marula tree (Sclerocarya birrea) with yellow fruits

Marula trees are widespread across southern Africa, dating back thousands of years.

You’ll find them in the Miombo woodland areas, the most famous of which is the Greater Kruger area, one of Africa’s best safari destinations.

The scientific name for the marula tree is Sclerocarya birrea.

Colloquially, you can refer to the marula tree as the “elephant tree.”

The fruit itself is a yellow color on the outside, with white flesh on the inside.

Facts about the marula tree

Do you want to know more about the source of the marula fruit? Listed below are some interesting facts about the marula tree.

  • The marula tree is large and leafy and can grow up to sixteen feet tall (4.8 m). The tree produces marula fruit almost year-round – even in the dry seasons.
  • Many locals refer to the marula tree as “the elephant tree” because of the myth surrounding drunken animals who eat the fruit.
  • The South African Forestry Group protects and conserves Marula trees under law.
  • Some African communities use the marula bark as an antihistamine and as a prevention for malaria. Marula fruit can even treat stomach aches.

Marula fruit characteristics

Grey go-away-bird feeding on fallen marula fruits

The marula fruit is incredibly high in vitamin C, containing eight times more vitamin C than oranges.

In ancient times, this juicy fruit was a staple dietary component in Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa.

As an important part of local diets, the Bantu people carried marula with them as they migrated through Africa.

That’s why you’ll now find marula fruits in countries like Madagascar and West Africa.

The nut inside of the marula fruit is full of protein and minerals.

The fruit is not only a delicacy for elephants. Impala, kudu, nyala, baboons, warthogs, and other creatures also feed on this delicious treat.

These animals get fallen marula directly from the ground, or thanks to the pachyderms that shake the trees to get the fruit to fall off the branches.

Marula fruit taste, benefits, and uses

Yellow marula fruits on display - revealing their juicy white flesh

Are you wondering what marula fruit tastes like? Well, ripe marula tastes almost tart, with a sweet or sour taste. How sweet or sour depends on its ripeness.

At the center, it has a large walnut-sized stone containing a soft nut kernel. The kernel is highly nutritious and has a rather delicate and distinct aroma. People usually eat this raw or roasted.

There are multiple uses for marula fruit. You can boil the marula skin to brew tea with, or burn it and grind it as a substitute for coffee.

You can also extract marula oil from the fruit, which has tons of medicinal benefits.

As previously mentioned, the marula tree fruit makes for an excellent source of vitamins.

Additionally, it is rich in oleic acids and other antioxidants, the latter of which aids in the prevention of various diseases, including heart disease.

The fruit further offers other health benefits for the bones, skin, hair, and muscles.

Most often, the marula fruit is processed and used in beverages and jellies.

In South Africa, it is hand-harvested and turned into the famous creamy drink – Amarula.

We will take a deeper look at this in the section to follow.

Amarula Fruit Alcohol: Fact or Fiction?

Amarula cream on display in local liquor store, Cape Town, South Africa

Like most fruits, marula can ferment to create marula alcohol. The same principle applies to potatoes, which are fermented to create vodka, and apples, which produce cider.

Marula trees are incredibly popular for elephants – they eat the bark and devour the fruit, then spread marula seeds around their habitats. The seeds are even spread through elephant dung.

So, as time went on, elephants and marula fruits became mythically linked. According to some, marula is wildlife booze that gets elephants drunk.

The story goes that wild animals would get drunk by eating the marula fruit that had fallen off trees and fermented while on the ground.

The story was so powerful that it inspired an entire liquor brand – the famous “Amarula” cream, which is a tasty liqueur similar to Bailey’s.

For this reason, the Marula tree is sometimes referred to as the Amarula tree.

There is also a psychedelically painted elephant on the front cover of the Amarula bottle.

Even the liquor brand leverages the lore of marula to sell bottles of their product. You can see elephants plucking the fruit from trees in Amarula advertisements, hinting at the myth that many Amarula patrons believe in.

Origins of the Animal Booze Story

Ripe marula fruits - close-up shot

If you’re wondering if there’s any truth to this tale of tipsy elephants in the wild, here’s what you need to know.

The story goes back a long way and has received considerable attention over the years.

What started as Zulu folklore became international know-how.

It’s a simple narrative.

Marula fruits drop from the tree and slowly ferment on the ground. Because they are so high in sugar, the fermentation process happens quickly.

Animals come past and eat the fruits, sometimes eating great quantities because food can be hard to come by on the savannah.

Then the animals become drunk and act a little crazy (like most of us do when we over-imbibe).

Flashback to 1974, when a documentary filmmaker by the name of Jamie Uys produced two documentaries called “Animals Are Beautiful People.”

If you haven’t heard of Jamie Uys before, you may be acquainted with his famous film “The Gods Must Be Crazy.”

Animals Are Beautiful People” was a critical and commercial success, blending stunning Southern African wildlife scenes with comedic relief.

The locations in the film include the Namib desert, the Kalahari desert, and the Okavango Delta.

The footage for the documentary, portraying wild animals getting drunk after eating marula fruits, became an immediate hit and even received a Golden Globe award for best documentary.

Today, millions of people think that elephants get drunk on marula fruit.

The question is: is it really true?

Do Elephants Get Drunk on Marula Fruit?

Big bull elephant under a large marula tree, Greater Kruger, South Africa

Does marula fruit make animals drunk?

I’m sorry to disappoint you, but the story is an absolute myth.

Jamie Uys’ footage was completely staged, and the animals were, believe it or not, fed with alcohol.

The director and crew first soaked the marula fruits in booze, then filmed the scenes to make the story appear more believable.

Nowadays, misleading an audience in a major film would cause a serious scandal.

Back then, we lived in a different world.

Can Marula Fruit Get You Drunk?

Leopard tortoise eating ripe marula fruit

Although the story sounds believable, there are many holes in the theory.

Firstly, most of the animals that feed on marula trees will pick the fruit directly from the tree branches.

Elephants can reach up and grab the lush fruit with their trunks. Naturally, they don’t need to wait until it drops on the ground.

Food is precious in the African savanna. As soon as the marula fruit is ripe, there will be many animals coming out for a feast – not just elephants.

So, the marula fruit won’t have time to ferment and become alcoholic. Plus, the animals have no need to eat rotten fruit.

Some theorists believed that the fruit could ferment inside the elephant because it would take up to 48 hours to pass through an elephant’s system. That theory doesn’t hold up either.

In practice, any person (or animal) would have to ingest 25% of its own body weight in fruit (in one go) in order to get drunk.

As you can imagine, the chances of that happening are pretty low.

Biologist Steve Morris told National Geographic that there is no scientific evidence pointing to the possibility of elephants getting wasted on marula fruit.

According to Morris, “People just want to believe in drunken elephants.” It is a funny story, after all.

Drunk Animals Footage

You can watch a clip of the Jamie Uys documentary below. It’s entertaining, though completely unethical in my point of view.

Animals Getting Drunk on Marula: The Myth

A bottle of Amarula is a classic souvenir to take back from Africa.

I know from experience that the marula fruit can get you drunk if you’re swigging from the bottle, yet just biting down on a rotten marula fruit simply won’t do the trick.

Hopefully, debunking this myth about marula fruit won’t deter you from visiting the incredible locations where marula grows in Africa.

For a chance to see African wildlife up close, as well as the marula tree, check out these incredible safari deals.

32 thoughts on “Do African animals get drunk from marula fruit? Or is it a myth?”

  1. Cheeki Breeki

    I love when blogs write 1000+ words to answer a very simple and straightforward question instead of just giving an answer. Brevity is the soul of wit, but loquaciousness is the source of ad revenue!

  2. If it wasn’t staged, why has it not been seen or filmed before or since?

    In the 45 years since it was filmed, not one person, not one documentary has seen nor recorded it?

    Your argument categorically rules out the fruit being the cause.

      1. There’s just no way you can get all those animals to all be so drunk at the same time so either you’ve shot them with a specially spiked tranquilizer or at least the elephants couldn’t have gotten drunk so easily just by some alcohol dipped fruit. I’m a man and I’d never get near halfway drunk with some fruit dipped in alcohol; an elephant would end up waking up further rather than drunk. If anything those fruit really have some out of it crazy chemical in them like magic mushrooms have lsd.

    1. Cheers Deji!

      I was not aware of this document and will read it with great attention.

      All the best,

      Michael

      PS: Great photography, btw. Feel free to join us as a contributor to share your passion for wild Africa. 😉

    2. Hello Deji,

      It is indeed comical to watch … yet it leaves me with thinking “how was this filmed” … makes the animals look rather silly and for some extremely vulnerable! Not at all complementary to these animals … I have seen the Gods Must Be Crazy several times … again very funny and at times SO obviously staged; good family entertainment.
      I’m a true believer in the science …

  3. Ok I do not believe you sir since you have no proof other than your assumption and theory. Let’s say Elephants were given alcohol to get them drunk. Do you have any Idea how much alcohol probably in the whiskey class it would take to get a 2.5 to 7 ton Elephant drunk? I have no idea but it would take more than a few gallons that is for sure.Let’s add a few more elephants to the equation not to mention there is a probable chance many animals would shun at higher concentrations of Alcohol in the 80 proof on up category. Plus there were other animals that were drunk also. So please explain to me how did they get half a semi trailer full of potent liquor into the remote savannah to do this stunt?

  4. You mentioned: “Jamie Uys’ footage was totally staged and the animals were, believe it or not, fed with alcohol. The directors first soaked the food, then filmed the scenes to make it more believable.”

    Do you have proof for this? Or is this your assumption of what happened?

  5. I know this is old, but I was born and bred in Rhodesia, and in my time in the army, I have seen elephants eating Marulas and staggering around.

    1. Very interesting Nick, thanks for sharing. When was this exactly? So from what you’ve experienced you’re saying they were in fact affected by the fruit?

      Would be helpful to learn more.

  6. "The lore holds that elephants can get drunk by eating the fermented fruit rotting on the ground. Books have been written asserting the truth of the phenomenon, and eyewitness accounts of allegedly intoxicated pachyderms have even been made."

    "But a "new" study to be published in the March/April 2006 issue of the journal Physiological and Biochemical Zoology tells a very different story. "

    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/12/1219_051219_drunk_elephant_2.html

  7. "Later research showed that these scenes were improbable and, in all probability, staged. Elephants would need a huge amount of fermented marulas to have any effect on them, and other animals prefer the ripe fruit. The amount of water drunk by elephants each day would also dilute the effect of the fruit to such an extent that they would not be affected by it." (Wikipedia)

    1. This is 8 years late. Anyway, I skimmed through the research paper and an additional point to note – the elephants prefer the marulas on the trees and not the rotten ones on the ground. I think it is staged. But the research is restricted to elephant consumption of marula. It may be a different case for small animals.

      1. Glad you found what you were looking for, Shah. Looks like you consulted Duncan’s link, correct? If not, here it is again: https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/12/1219_051219_drunk_elephant.html Among other things, the National Geographic article mentions the following: “Producing a liter of marula wine requires 200 fruits. So an elephant would have to ingest more than 1,400 well-fermented fruits to start to get drunk. Even then the elephant would have to ingest the alcohol all at once, the authors note.”

        In other words, the science suggests this kind of “drunken behaviour” is not plausible at all.

    2. And Elephants take a daily crap that can weigh from 300 to 500 lbs so are you saying an Elephant cannot eat enough fermented fruit to get drunk? 1400 fruits is a modest meal for a 2.5 to 7 ton mammal. And contrary to popular belief Elephants do not drink water everyday as there are droughts and water can be scarce.

  8. While that may be staged it is well documented that due to the slow digestive processes of elephants, the fruit does ferment in their stomachs and they do get drunk. I refer you to Peter H. Capstick — He's killed nearly a thousand elephants in his time as a professional hunter and government elephant cropper and he's seen this effect.

    1. Hi Bobby, thanks for the info.

      You said “he’s killed nearly a thousand elephants in his time”. Are you sure this guy is not a “butcher”? 🙂

      Will check him out, though to be honest I don’t buy into the theory.

      Cheers,

      Michael

      1. And I do not buy into your theory to be honest. I have seen dogs and racoons drink beer and wine left over from dumpsters.

      2. This guy is INDEED a freaking butcher!!! There is NO reason for killing one elephant let alone over 1000!!! How on earth does one justify this?

        1. Thanks, Luke. My thoughts exactly!

          Michael, you might be interested in how I found your site. I’m listening to an audiobook where one of the characters, a clever go-away bird, adores marulas. I noticed, too, that you have a great photo of a go-away bird near the top of the page. Cool birds!

          1. Jambo Raye,

            That’s super interesting, thanks for sharing! 🙂

            How did you exactly find the site, though?

            Did you come across the go-away bird image via a search engine?

            It’s actually a grey go-away bird (or grey lourie).

            Its funny name comes from the sound it makes, which resonates a little like “go away”. 😉

            Love them too!

  9. I always loved the part when the animals are "drunk" in "Animals are Beautiful People" (especially when I was a kid watching the docu). Never knew it was staged! Thanx for the info! As you said, it would truly be a scandal nowadays…!

    Definitely makes me think entirely differently about that documentary now. So thanx for shedding light on that "drunken scene"!

    Dorothee

  10. Hi Anil! 🙂

    I must admit the first time I saw the video I was a little skeptical about it, although I “kind of” thought to myself it could well be possible!

    It is not until very recently nevertheless that I did a bit of research on the matter, and found out about the truth behind this rather controversial video.

    Cheers,

    Mike

    1. You know Mike, AfricaFreak … Some of these animals, particularly the elephants look drugged. We all have watched the documentaries on how the park rangers and vets go in and must tranquilize these beautiful giants to perform medical helpful procedures. What’s your take on this ?? I just hate seeing these awesome creatures laughter at … I also hate circuses too !!

      Sincerely,

      Luke Gray

      1. Hi Luke,

        I don’t know if you picked it up, but here’s an extract of the article:

        “Jamie Uys’ footage was totally staged and the animals were, believe it or not, fed with alcohol.”

        Sure, the elephants may have been drugged, although I do not have any proof to back this up.

        Thanks for your comment,

        Michael

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