‘Animals Are Beautiful People’ is a humorous 1974 Golden Globe Award-winning documentary, directed and written by Jamie Uys, about the wildlife of various arid desert environments in Southern Africa. Filmed in the Namib Desert, the Kalahari Desert and the Okavango Delta, a soft-spoken narrator weaves whimsical tales over superb footage of animals and birds behaving oddly. Some scenes portray elephants, ostriches, warthogs and monkeys becoming intoxicated from eating fermented fruit of the marula tree. Their antics are hilarious until you start to question the authenticity of such documentaries.
Enshrined in local lore for generations and popularised by Uys’s documentary, the myth of drunken elephants has since been debunked by scientific research, prompting the suggestion that the scenes in the film were, in all probability, staged. According to a 2006 study in Physiological and Biochemical Zoology cited in Smithsonian Magazine, elephants may have a taste for alcohol, but they don’t eat the rotten fruit off the ground. They eat the fresh fruit right off the tree. As Steve Morris, a biologist at the University of Bristol and lead author of the study, asserts: “This a largely self-evident fact, since elephants will even push over trees to get the fruit off the tree, even when rotten fruit is on the ground.” He says anecdotes of elephants found drunk in the wild go back more than a century. “There are travellers’ tales from about 1839 reporting Zulu accounts that ‘elephants gently warm their brains with fermented fruits'” he said. “But there is nothing in the biology of either the African elephant or the marula fruit to support the stories… People just want to believe in drunken elephants.”
The marula tree, a member of the same family as the mango, grows widely in Africa. Its sweet yellow fruit is used for making jam, wine, beer, and a liqueur called Amarula. Michelle Gadd, an African wildlife specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says that elephants and many other species are too fond of marula fruit to let it rot. “Elephants regularly visit and revisit the same marula trees, checking the fruits and the bark for palatability and devour the fruits when they are ripe,” she explains.
Furthermore, the fresh fruit simply doesn’t spend enough time in the elephant’s stomach to ferment and produce alcohol there. Scientists have calculated that even if an elephant did eat the rotten fruit, it would have to eat 1400 pieces of exceptionally fermented fruit to get drunk. The amount of water consumed by elephants each day would also dilute the intoxicating effect of the fruit. Food takes between 12 and 46 hours to pass through an elephant’s digestive system, which is not enough time for the fruit to ferment. According to the 2006 study, sugars within the diet are metabolised to volatile fatty acids, making them unavailable to fermentation. In other words, the sugars are turned into fat before they can ferment into alcohol.
It makes for a thoroughly entertaining movie, but the science suggests the image of a drunken elephant sitting under a marula tree is the stuff of legend and myth. As for Uys’s footage, the likelihood is that the filmmakers had soaked the elephants’ food with alcohol (or had tranquilized the animals) and filmed the consequences. If this were ever proven to be true, it would be just another scandalous example of the sensationalism and fabrication that has persistently undermined the wildlife film-making industry.