The Marula fruit can be found in Africa, and it is yellow when ripe and green when not. The fruit somewhat reminds me of buah duku. I am told it is sweet when ripe (and I imagine it to taste like duku). Anyway, many of us have seen this fruit and if you take a couple of minutes to watch this excerpt from Animals Are Beautiful People, those who have seen the Marula tree and fruit on film will remember.
While I was writing the Do You Know segment on the Marula fruit for an interesting Science book, I remembered this film and fruit. I thought it would be an easy writing task until I read something about this above film scene. A few sources said that it was staged. "But it can't be! This is a documentary film! It is factual and a reflection of truth, isn't it?" I thought to myself. I had accepted it as a fact for a long time.
The film scene has been criticised as highly unlikely and staged. Now I had a duty to my young readers – to thoroughly check whether it was fact or fiction. It caused me a detour of a few hours. Clarity finally arrived with a 2006 research journal article by Steve Morris, David Humphreys and Dan Reynolds, entitled Myth, Marula, and Elephant: An Assessment of Voluntary Ethanol Intoxication of the African Elephant (Loxodonta africana) Following Feeding on the Fruit of the Marula Tree (Sclerocarya birrea). The researchers concluded that "Assuming that all other model factors are in favor of inebriation*, then intoxication would minimally require that the elephant avoids drinking water and consumes a diet of only marula fruit at a rate of at least 400% normal maximum food intake and with a mean alcohol content of at least 3%. On our analysis, this seems extremely unlikely." Further, they observed that "elephants show a distinct preference for fruit still on the tree rather than those ripening on the ground".
Although the research was limited to elephants and their consumption of the Marula fruit, my hunch was clear – the film scene was probably staged. You see I have worked in the TV and film industry for a few years. In that short period, I wrote, project-managed, acted, produced and even directed. So I re-watched the clip again. A blogger (Link to his blog) has suggested that the directors of the film staged the scene. Michael Theys writes: "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."
Theys' explanation is possible, probable in fact. Why? Filming is not cheap. Timing, framing and getting the right shots for a nature documentary generally takes a very long time. Staging it would save much money and provide many shots that would be loved by viewers. By the way, this is the same producer-director who produced and directed The Gods Must Be Crazy, a favourite film even up to today. Even as a youth, I wondered whether certain parts of the movie was a documentary film. The guy was so good in his art that the tribesman acted or lived the many funny parts in the film. Even if the film scene was staged, I salute Jamie Uys for his creativity and filming abilities. How many directors and producers could have successfully directed both Animals Are Beautiful People and The Gods Must Be Crazy? The answer is very, very few.