Put on your anthropomorphic glasses and it sure does look like this herd of tipsy elephants is stumbling home after a rough night at the local watering hole ... er, marula tree. Indigenous to southern Africa (and parts of West Africa and Madagascar), the marula tree is known for its sweet, yellow fruit – and local lore says that same fruit becomes 'ellie alcohol' once its fallen to the ground and fermented.

Drunk Elephants Marula 3 2014 05 13
If we didn't know any better, we'd swear these elephants have had one too many ...

These hilarious photos were taken at Singita Sabie Sands game reserve in South Africa. While it's easy to be swayed by a story as awesome as this, scientists debunked the drunk myth back in 2005, saying that it's "nearly impossible for elephants to become intoxicated from eating the fruit of the marula tree". 

However, the researchers also offer an alternative explanation for the seemingly intoxicated ellies. In addition to the fruit of the marulas, elephants also eat the bark, and along with it, beetle pupae that live inside the trees. Traditionally used by San hunters to poison their arrow tips, toxins from the pupae could be the real reason these elephants look a little wobbly.

Marula Tree Elephant 2014 05 13
Elephants, along with many other species, regularly feast on the fruit of the marula tree.

Singita writes on its blog

There has long been an African myth about the marula fruit intoxicating large mammals that have consumed huge amounts of the fallen fruit. This bush legend played in my mind recently when we had a sighting of an elephant herd moving through the bush, feeding on the fermenting marula fruit. The younger elephants walked behind the older siblings, picking up and eating the fruit as they moved – the older elephants seemed to be ‘teaching’ the youngsters what was safe to eat. An adult cow had forcefully shaken a nearby marula tree, knocking off lots of the fruit, which a few younger elephants passed by our vehicle to eat. We watched in awe because the youngsters definitely seemed to display signs of being rather tipsy!

As amusing as the idea may be, it is in fact extremely unlikely. In reality, an elephant eating only marulas may consume roughly 30kg in one day or approximately 714 individual fruits. This is less than half of the marulas needed to produce intoxication. There have been reports of elephant behaviour that resembles an intoxicated state, but research shows that this is unlikely to occur only from eating marulas. 

Drunk Elephants Marula 1 2012 05 13
Elephant pile-on!
Drunk Elephants Marula 2 2014 05 13
"Come on, buddy, let's get you home."

Check out more great wildlife stories on the Singita blog.

Top header image: Ton Rulkens, Flickr