Kenya’s Unique Cave Dwellers
By Awake! correspondent in Kenya
WE MARCHED up the well-trodden path. The sound of cascading water echoing through the branches of the juniper forest hinted that the end of our trail was near. Above yawned the mouth of the cave, inside of which often lurked the creatures we had come so far to see—the elephants of Elgon.
The cave’s entrance was some 25 feet [8 m] high and 25 feet [8 m] wide. Our hearts raced with anticipation as we entered. However, the clicking noise of flying bats quickly confirmed a grim suspicion. We had come either too late or too early. The hoof-pocked, powdery surface of the cave floor bore witness that the elephants had already been here and had left.
Just why, though, did we hope to see elephants some 7,000 feet [2,000 m] up at this spot on the mountain, not to mention in a cave? This makes for a fascinating story.
The Mountain’s Cave Homes
Straddling the Kenya-Uganda border is the towering volcanic cone of Mount Elgon. At 14,180 feet [4,320 m], it is one of East Africa’s tallest solitary mountains. Some speculate that before erosion took its toll, its summit may have dwarfed even the snowcapped peak of Kilimanjaro. The mountain looms over exotic forests, hot springs, and cold-water lakes. Perhaps Elgon’s most amazing attraction, though, is its numerous caves. These house the elephants we were so intent on seeing.
At one time these caves were home to the Kony people, or Elgon Masai. Some feel that the mountain is named after them. The Kony first arrived here over 300 years ago. When Joseph Thomson, the first white man to explore the area, came through in 1883, he was no doubt amazed to find a complex of villages built in some of the caves.
For the most part, the Masai have abandoned their cave dwellings, though some Masai still dwell in certain lower caves along Mount Elgon’s base. In time the animals gracing these woods filled the vacancies in the abandoned caves. Buffalo found it hard to resist the tempting puddles of mud found in them. Swifts and swallows were eager to come in and catch all the tasty insects that the caves’ moist pools attracted.
Oddly enough, though, the caves also proved to be irresistible to the most unlikely cave dwellers of them all—the elephants. To this day these hulking giants heave their four- to six-ton frames up steep and narrow paths in order to reach the caves. What brings them here?
In the caves is found a dietary supplement that their hulking bodies crave. Normally, vegetation would provide sufficient salt in their diet, but at this high altitude, the salt has been washed out of the soil by rain. The elephants thus trek here to extract the sodium sulphate (Glauber’s salt) that is found within the soft agglomerate lining the cavern’s interior.
To get at the salt, the elephants employ a unique technique. They place their tusks against an irregularity or crack in the cave wall. Next, a powerful shove from their bulldozerlike body loosens pieces of stone. After placing a piece of rock in their mouth with their limber trunk, the elephants grind it with their strong molars and swallow the gravel and salt together. This is repeated until the elephants have had their fill. Afterward a good snooze in the dark, cool mine seems to help the digestion.
Interestingly, though the elephants’ ivory tusks continue growing throughout life, they tend to become worn down to stubs—the price paid for the doses of salt.
After the elephants linger in and around the caves for some weeks, the itch to roam again makes itself felt. They may parade up to the bamboo forest for a nibble of its tender shoots or chewy bark. Elephants spend some 18 hours a day eating, consuming as much as 400 pounds [180 kg] of foliage. In time Elgon’s caves beckon them because of their craving for salt.
Considering their nomadic tendencies and sparse numbers (a hundred is a liberal guess), it is little wonder that we failed to see these trekking tuskers.
Elephants at Last!
Heading out of camp the next morning, we quietly drove through the dew-drenched forest, which teemed with colobus monkeys and singing birds. Suddenly, there was a loud crack, followed by an abrupt shaking of bushes nearby! We maneuvered ourselves to within a few yards of the ruckus.
Waiting in silence, we heard the faint sound of shifting bodies behind a tall thicket hedge that ran parallel to our roadway. Eventually, one of these bashful beasts, a young bull, grew tired of our game of hide-and-seek and stormed out to within ten feet [3 m] of our car. He was handsome and robust, and his ocher-red pigmentation glowed in the brilliant morning sun. Despite his short stature, his menacing look commanded respect.
I managed to get my camera into position for what would be a great picture. But the shutter would not release; I was out of film! Then a mother elephant stepped out and escorted her little one past the front of our car. By the time I reloaded my camera, the elephants were too far away for a spectacular close-up, but I took a picture that would at least prove I had seen these elusive giants.
What amazing creatures! Capable of being as silent as mice, yet heavier than a car. Larger than some trucks, yet rarely seen. But don’t let that stop you from paying a visit to the home of Kenya’s unique cave dwellers.