The Cave Elephants of Mount Elgon
A true wonder of the natural world
It is my first morning in the Mountain Elgon National Park and I wake long before dawn
The sky is still dark and the birds have just begun to twitter. Sitting on the lower slopes of the oldest and largest solitary volcano in East Africa, I can see the surrounding landscape of the plains and the distant Great Rift Valley spread out beneath me.
Three decades previously, when I started my career as an explorer, I used to come to this spot to watch the more secretive animals; to listen for the roar that signalled the arrival of the king of all creatures, or look out for the shy herd of breeding elephants who enter Mount Elgon’s labyrinth of caves to lick the salt they gouge from the walls with their tusks.
Mount Elgon is an extinct shield volcano on the border of Uganda and Kenya, north of the port city of Kisumu and west of Kitale. The spectacular National Park within which it lies covers an area of 1,279 square kilometres and is 140 kilometres north east of Lake Victoria. Mount Elgon is an important water catchment for the Nzoia River and the Lwakhakha which flow into Africa’s largest lake and for the Turkwel River which flows into Lake Turkana.
The mountain is named after the Elgeyo (also known as the Keiyo) people, who once lived in the huge caves on the south side of the mountain. The Mount Elgon massif consists of five major peaks: The mountain’s highest point, ‘Wagagai’ at 4,321 metres, is located entirely within Uganda; ‘Sudek’ (4,302 metres) in Kenya; ‘Koitobos’ (4,222 metres), a flat-topped basalt column in Kenya, and the peaks of ‘Mubiyi’ (4,211 metres) rise majestically in Uganda and ‘Masaba’ at 4,161 metres in Kenya.
Although Mt. Elgon was well known to Arab traders passing along the old slave routes to its east in Kenya, the celebrated explorer Henry Morton Stanley was the first to write about Mt. Elgon when he presumably saw it while circumnavigating Lake Victoria in 1875.
Joseph Thompson, a British explorer and geographer was the first European to actually visit the central massif in 1883. Thompson referred to the mountain as “Masawa” or “Elgon” and generated curiosity among the explorers.
In 1890, with a 400-man caravan, Frederick Jackson of the Imperial British East Africa Company was the first European to visit Mt. Elgon’s caldera and to climb any of the major peaks. Ironically, Jackson climbed from the south and probably never even saw the summit of Masaba peak which was later named Jackson’s Summit after him.
Elgon’s slopes support a rich variety of vegetation ranging from montane forest to high open moorland studded with giant lobelia and groundsel plants, which varies with altitude. The mountain slopes are covered with olive Olea hochstetteri and Aningueria adolfi-friedericii wet montane forest. At higher altitudes, this changes to olive and Podocarpus gracilior forest, and then a Podocarpus and bamboo Arundinaria alpine zone. Higher still is a Hagenia abyssinica zone with moorland heaths, Erica arborea and Philippia trimera, tussock grasses such as Agrostis gracilifolia and Festuca pilgeri, herbs such as Alchemilla, Helichrysum, and the giant groundsels Senecio barbatipes and Senecio elgonensis.
The mountain also supports an abundance of rare and endemic wildlife, and is home to a variety of small antelope, and forest monkeys, including the black-and-white colobus and blue monkey, while leopard, giant forest hog, bushbuck, eland, duiker, buffalo, and elephants can be found on the lower slopes. Over 300 bird species can also be found in the area, including the endangered Lammergeier or bearded vulture, African goshawk, and the tiny Baglafecht weaver, but it is the worldrenowned cave elephants that are the main draw to visitors to this spectacular mountain.
It is now close to 30 years since I first experienced the excitement of watching these mysterious elephants disappearing into the dark labyrinth of caves to excavate the mineral-rich rock for salt. The species of elephant who live on the mountain are savannah elephants (Loxodonta africana), not the forest elephants of West and Central Africa.
The ancient volcano of Mt. Elgon is penetrated by a suite of highly-unusual caves. The larger caves of Kitum, Ngwarisha, Chepnyalil, and Makingeny are neither limestone solution caves, nor lava tubes. Their origin lies in the interplay of unique geology with the fauna – particularly the elephants and other mammals who “mine” the salt-bearing rock from the walls of the caves.
Numbering only about 100 individuals, this unique population of elephants was hit hard by ivory poaching in the 1980’s and 90’s. Now, thanks largely to the work of the Born Free Foundation and the Uganda Wildlife Authority, who are helping to pay for their protection, and for the development of this beautiful National Park, their numbers are increasing.
So, why is this population so special?
Many land-living herbivores experience ‘salt hunger’. Their diet of plants does not supply them with enough minerals (e.g. sodium), so they seek these out in any digestible form that they can find. In many places this leads to animals congregating around salt licks, which are often favourite spots for safari tours. On Mt. Elgon, however, the only natural source of salt is more obscure – it is found in deep, natural caves in the side of the mountain.
The elephants enter these caves as whole families, very often with youngsters in tow, and walk as far as 160 metres into the pitch darkness to find a salt seam in the rock. They then excavate the mineral-rich rock with their tusks, chipping off rough chunks of halite and eating these hidden gems as a vital dietary supplement. The most frequently visited cave in Mt. Elgon is Kitum, meaning ‘Place of Ceremonies’ in Maasai, which is over 60 metres wide and penetrates 200 metres into the mountain.
It became notorious following the publication of Richard Preston’s book ‘The Hot Zone’ in 1994 for its association with the Marburg virus after two people who had visited the cave (one in 1980 and another in 1987) contracted the disease and died. Henry Rider Haggard’s hugely popular novel ‘King Solomon’s Mines’ is also reputed to have been inspired by the Mt. Elgon caves.
In 2001 Born Free started funding the Mount Elgon Monitoring Team – the MEEM Team – which had been initiated by the BBC Natural History Unit in Bristol to learn more about the elephants prior to filming them for Sir David Attenborough’s new series ‘The Life of Mammals’. These dedicated rangers, led by Daniel Namunai track the elephants with the help of expert tracker David Kiperenge. They have found that there is only one group of elephants, and they follow these animals on a daily basis, recording their position and activities. At the same time, they announce their presence with elephant greeting noises, or ‘rumbles’. It is hoped that this procedure – similar to that adopted by Dian Fossey to habituate gorillas – will soon make it possible for tourists to accompany the rangers and experience the thrill of tracking elephants through the forest, whilst also providing valuable funding for the development and running of the Park.
The BBC Natural History Unit continued funding the team during further filming and Born Free has been providing salaries for the MEEM Team since 2001. In 2002, they provided extra funding for fuel and for the removal of the old fencing, from which wire was being taken and used to make snares. The number of snares in the Park has since declined dramatically. Born Free also provided a TV and video for the Park to use in their education and outreach activities.
The Mount Elgon National Park is not on the usual tourist routes, but after featuring in Sir David Attenborough’s ‘The Life of Mammals’ on 4 December 2002 and the ‘Natural World’ on 19 October 2003, visitor numbers increased considerably and it is hoped that there will be even more visitors over the coming years and the Park will be able to expand its infrastructure, services and community work.
Mount Elgon is home to three tribes, the Bagisu, the Sabiny and the Ogiek people, better known in the region under the derogatory ethnic umbrella term Ndorobo. The Bagisu and Sabiny are subsistence farmers and conduct circumcision ceremonies every other year to initiate young men (and in the Sabiny’s case, girls) into adulthood. Traditionally, the Bagisu consider Mt. Elgon to be the embodiment of their founding father ‘Masaba’, and you may hear the mountain called by this name.
Local people have long depended on forest produce and have made agreements with the Park to continue to harvest resources such as bamboo poles and bamboo shoots (a local delicacy). The Ogiek used to be hunters and honey gatherers, but have become more sedentary in recent decades, and have partially been moved downward by the Government.
Together with the cave elephants and abundance of flora and fauna, the Mount Elgon National Park has a variety of other attractions to tempt the discerning traveller, including its towering cliffs, breathtaking gorges, calderas, bubbling hot springs and jagged peaks. At the Endebess Bluff there are panoramic views over the region’s escarpments, gorges, mesas, and rivers.
Located in the foothills of Mt. Elgon you will find the spectacular cascades of the Sipi Falls, a series of three waterfalls, the main cascade of which plummets from a height of 100 metres and is very popular with climbers and hikers. The Sipi Falls area is particularly famous for its Bagisu Arabica coffee produced and grown locally by farmers. Other attractions include the ancient cave paintings near the trailhead at Budadiri, which depict the presence of cave elephants in the region even in the Neolithic Age.
Mt. Elgon has been described as a “Mountain of Illusion”, particularly due to the number of hiking parties who lost their way on its slopes in the past and because no explorer could determine its highest point. But the cave elephants of Mount Elgon are no illusion, they are a true wonder of the natural world and a must see species for any visitor to Uganda.
- Peter Holthusen
Top Image - Peter Holthusen and Otto
Middle Image - © Ian Redmond via Peter Holthusen
Bottom Image - Mount Elgon. The mountain’s slopes support a rich variety of flora and fauna, but it is the world-renowned cave elephants that are the main draw to visitors to this spectacular mountain.