Elephants in China got drunk and passed out in a garden

An Asian elephant extends its trunk.
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

UPDATED on May 8 -- Editor’s note: Live Science has found that the elephants discussed in this article were not drunk; they were just resting. Read more about where the story came from and how it went viral.

Tweets mentioned in the article that describe the "drunk" elephants have since been deleted and are no longer available.

Large public gatherings are currently prohibited in many places to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus, but that didn’t stop a group of Asian elephants from partying in a field in Yunnan Province in China, where they found and drained vats of corn wine. 

Two elephants drank so much wine that they passed out in a tea garden.

A photo of the inebriated elephants — lying curled up back to back on a dirt bed amid the greenery — went viral after it was shared on Twitter on March 18 by Parveen Kaswan, a conservationist and an Indian Forest Service officer. Kaswan mentioned in the tweet that wild elephants have a taste for booze, quipping that these particular pachyderms had turned to alcohol "to sanitize [their] trunks," and were sleeping off the aftermath.

Related: Incredible photos capture last glimpse of long-tusked 'elephant queen'

Asian elephants (Elephas maximus indicus) inhabit grasslands and forest habitats across countries in southern Asia, and there are estimated to be fewer than 50,000 of them in the wild, the World Wildlife Fund says

But in China there are only 250 of these elephants left, and they face the looming threat of local extinction, Kaswan tweeted.

In another tweet, Kaswan posted a photo of the elephant herd "when they were all sober," clustered together amid rows of crops. In forest regions where the elephants live, locals are aware of the animals' interest in human-made alcohol, Kaswan said. But even when people bury their liquor, "somehow elephants find it," Kaswan wrote in the tweet.

Elephants will even "mark" locations where they have previously found alcohol and come back later to see if there's more, Kaswan added.

Persistent rumors and anecdotes had long suggested that African elephants regularly become drunk on fermented marula fruit, though scientists determined more than a decade ago that this was likely a myth. An animal the size of an elephant — weighing more than 6,600 lbs. (3,000 kilograms) — would have to consume 400 times the amount of fruit in its normal diet and not drink any water for the alcohol to make it intoxicated, researchers reported in 2006 in the journal Physiological and Biochemical Zoology.

However, elephants that come across caches of liquor or wine might guzzle the beverage for its sweet taste, which could lead to drunkenness, Shermin de Silva, a cofounder of Sri Lanka's Elephant Forest and Environmental Trust, previously told Live Science.

Other types of wild creatures have demonstrated the effects of consuming too much alcohol. In 2011, a moose in Sweden got drunk after eating fermented apples and wound up entangled in a tree, according to the Smithsonian. White-tailed deer often browse on fermented apples in orchards, making them "stumble-y" and "sleepy," Don Moore, associate director of the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C., told National Geographic

And chimpanzees, our closest living primate relatives, appear to enjoy the taste of alcohol, soaking up fermenting palm sap with leaves and then squeezing the booze into their mouths, Live Science previously reported.

But there's one animal that imbibes more than any other — the Malaysian pen-tailed shrew. The shrews' diet consists entirely of fermented nectar that is about 3.8% alcohol, suggesting that the shrews would be perpetually drunk. However, despite the nectar's high alcohol content, the shrews have evolved to metabolize it so efficiently that they don't become inebriated at all, scientists discovered in 2008.

Originally published on Live Science.

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Mindy Weisberger
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Mindy Weisberger is an editor at Scholastic and a former Live Science channel editor and senior writer. She has reported on general science, covering climate change, paleontology, biology and space. Mindy studied film at Columbia University; prior to Live Science she produced, wrote and directed media for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Her videos about dinosaurs, astrophysics, biodiversity and evolution appear in museums and science centers worldwide, earning awards such as the CINE Golden Eagle and the Communicator Award of Excellence. Her writing has also appeared in Scientific American, The Washington Post and How It Works Magazine.  Her book "Rise of the Zombie Bugs: The Surprising Science of Parasitic Mind Control" will be published in spring 2025 by Johns Hopkins University Press.