Above: Underground Elephant Procession in Mt Elgon Photo courtesy Ian Redmond IanRedmond.co.uk
Published: The East African Nation media: 20-26 November 2021
Mount Elgon straddles the Kenya-Uganda border and is a mountain of many unique traits yet relatively unknown compared to the bigger massifs like Kenya and Kilimanjaro.
That it has the largest base of any free-standing mountain in the world is fascinating – stretching 50 kilometres by 80 kilometres. When you are on the lower slopes like at Kakapel near the Malaba border (Kenya-Uganda) with its little-known rock art in the cave, you may not realize you are on it. That Elgon, the extinct volcano is Africa’s eighth highest mountain with one of the largest intact calderas in the world. That, on its massive slopes, it has some of the oldest and tallest podo trees ( – ) in the world astounds the visitor in the midst of the ancient forest.
But nothing compares to Elgon’s elusive elephants. They may even be the architects of Elgon’s elephant caves – 27 recorded so far, digging deep in the dark underground for a coveted ingredient lacking in their diet: salt.
Mount Elgon’s elephants are the only known elephants in the world to mine through the caves, the longest being Kitum that’s 150 metres long and pitch dark. At the entrance, the elephants rub marks are evident as they squeeze between the boulders to enter the cave.
For hundreds of years, Elgon’s elephants have dug the walls of the caves, such that today even their tusks are so short that poachers have little use for them.
But another threat looms over them – that of the human-wildlife conflict.
Mount Elgon Elephant Protection
In an eye-opening account of Elgon’s unique elephants, Chris and Stephen Powles, whose grandfather founded Mount Elgon National Park and whose house today is the Mount Elgon Lodge present a talk with Dr Emmanuel Ndiema who was born on the mountain and is head of archaeology at the National Museums of Kenya.
Kitum is the most famous elephant cave. Yet there are at least 26 other caves extensively mined by elephants and unknown to the outside world. Some are in the protected park and others outside. The Kenyan Park measures 170 square kilometres of Kenya’s 1,000 square kilometre ecosystem while the Ugandan park is 1,100 square kilometres. Yet all the estimated 300 – 375 elephants are on the Kenyan side while on the Ugandan side, all were exterminated during Idi Amin’s bloody rule in the 1970s.
With an expending human population on the mountain, the forest has gradually retreated while the farms have expanded. Coupled with this, the bush meat trade and poaching for timber and firewood has increased. It’s not an uncommon scenario across Africa today and it goes without saying that the elephants have had confrontations with humans, in some cases leading to injury and in others, death.
Ndiema, excavating some caves in search of human origins where many of his ancestors lived, has found evidence in form of stone artefacts, pottery and rock art. However, some of the art has been damaged by modern graffiti or water running off deforested land.
With the increasing threat to Elgon’s elephants, the men of the mountain founded the Mount Elgon Foundation with the Oxford-educated Chris who holds a degree in zoology, as chair. One of the projects under MEF is the Mount Elgon Elephant Protection (MEEP) partnering with the East African Wild Life Society (EAWLS).
Employing men from local community as scouts, they are trained to monitor the elephants. This involves collecting data and mapping the areas they cover. This information is fed into the Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool (S.M.A.R.T.) on their smartphones.
“These men are unarmed, risking their lives to protect the natural heritage of Mount Elgon,” states Stephen, who doubles as a keen photographer and retired vet. “They are the eyes and ears on the ground.”
EAWLS works with the community to safeguard both human and elephant lives. Between 2016 and 2021, there have been at least six human and three elephant deaths. Each life counts.
A Measure of Success
In February 2020, a local herdsman reported to the community scouts an elephant near cattle. On closer look, the elephant was dragging a 3-metre log. It was a snare that was probably set for a buffalo. Tied to a thick nylon log, the rope had cut deep into her right foreleg. The elephant, a female, was moving slowly, raising the log with her trunk as she took each step to keep up with the herd.
The community scouts immediately reported to the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) who in turn flew Dr. Campaign Limo, the veterinary doctor to Mount Elgon. It took him and the scouts six hours to hike up and reach the female. They discovered she had been squirting water from a stream on to her wound. By now it was 6.30 p.m.
Dr Limo darted her.
It wasn’t easy operating by torchlight. After manoeuvring her, Limo cut the snare, pulled it out from her flesh, applied antibiotics, packed the wound with clay and revived her by 9 p.m. She was up in three minutes.
The community scouts have named her Chemukung. In Sabaot, the local language, it means the limping one.
But Chemukung had a greater surprise in store.
A few months later, the community scouts reported that Chemukung had a calf.
“Chemukung was pregnant when she was caught in the snare,” muses Chris. “By saving her, we saved two lives.”
Partnering with other NGO’s and institutions, MEF’s vision is to see the elephants safe, that a land-use plan is put into place so that there is no conflict of interest between human expansion and wildlife, that the elephants can move safely between boundaries into the Ugandan side, that the caves are secured against graffiti and trails for people to follow safely – and above all the community embrace the elephants and the other wildlife.
Mount Elgon is a fantastic mountain for tourism, yet it’s never been on the tourist map. It’s time that the beautiful mountain gets the attention she deserves and that the elephants continue mining their caves.
More on Mount Elgon Foundation, log on to https://mountelgonfoundation.org.uk/