The Elusive Elgon Elephants


Rupi Mangat, The East African Magazine

Date Published
Mount Elgon at the Kenya-Uganda border could be less famous that the region’s other mountains — Kilimanjaro, Kenya, Rwenzori and Meru — but it is equally fascinating being Africa’s eighth highest mountain.

It has the largest base of any free-standing mountain in the world, stretching 50 by 80 km; an extinct volcano, has one of the largest intact calderas in the world and its slopes carry some of the oldest and tallest podo trees, the East African Yellowwood.

But Elgon is known for its elusive elephants, famous for digging deep under the mountain range for salt, creating 27 ‘caves’. Mt Elgon’s elephants are the only pachyderms known to dig for salt. Mt Elgon is the best kept secret for tourism.

The deepest cave recorded is named Kitum, and stretches 150 metres.

But now, human-wildlife conflict threatens the elephant existence as forests are targeted for expansion of agricultural land, poaching for bush meat, timber and firewood.

Mt Elgon National Park on the Kenyan side measures 170 sq kilometres with a 1,000 sq km ecosystem, while the Ugandan park comprises a 1,100 sq km ecosytem. Yet all the 375 elephants are on the Kenyan side because those in Uganda were exterminated during the 1970s.

I got a first-hand account of Elgon’s elephants from Stephen Powles, whose grandfather founded the park and whose house today is the Mount Elgon Lodge, and also from Dr Emmanuel Ndiema, an Elgon native who is also head of archaeology at the National Museums of Kenya.

Dr Ndiema’s excavations have yielded evidence of early human settlements in some caves in the form of stone artefacts, pottery and rock art. However, some of the art has been damaged by modern graffiti or runoff water from deforested land.

The Mount Elgon Foundation runs the Elgon elephant protection in partnership with East African Wildlife Society. Locals are employed as scouts, trained to monitor the elephants by collecting data and mapping the areas they cover. This information is fed into the spatial monitoring and reporting tool on their smartphones. The objective is to ensure both humans and elephants live freely and safely without conflict.

Between 2016 and 2021, there have been at least six human and three elephant deaths, but there are successes.

In February last year, a herdsman reported an elephant sighting near his cattle and the scouts found an elephant dragging a three-metre log, attached to snare that had cut deep into her right foreleg. The female, hobbled slowly, raising the log with her trunk as she tried to keep in step with the rest of the herd.

The scouts contacted the Kenya Wildlife Service who in turn flew Dr Campaign Limo, a veterinary doctor to Mt Elgon. After a six-hour hike to reach her, it was 6.30pm, but Dr Limo darted her and successfully operated by torchlight.

The scouts named her Chemukung. In the local Sabaot language, it means the limping one. But Chemukung had a surprise in store. A few months later, the community scouts reported that Chemukung had a calved. In saving Chemukung, they saved two lives.