Born Free Foundation - Keep Wildlife in the Wild

The Underground Elephants of Mount Elgon, Kenya

"It is over 25 years since I first experienced the excitement of watching elephants disappearing into the dark zone of huge caves to mine mineral-rich rock in subterranean salt-licks." - Ian Redmond.

Photo Ian redmond


Mount Elgon is one of the hidden gems of Kenya. Sitting on the Ugandan border 100 kilometres north of Lake Victoria, it is home to a very special population of elephants. Currently numbering about 100 individuals, this population was hit hard by ivory poaching in the 1980s and 90s. Now Born Free is supporting KWS to ensure their protection.

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 at salt licks. On Mount Elgon, however, the only natural source of salt is more obscure - it is found in deep, natural caves in the side of the mountain. Herds of elephant enter these caves,  and walk as far as 150 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 and eating them as a vital dietary supplement. This is a unique behaviour, known only from this tiny population.

In 2001 Born Free started funding the Mount Elgon Elephant Monitoring Team - the MEEM Team – composed of local trackers and KWS rangers. The establishment of a MEEM team addressed a need to learn more about the elephants prior to filming by the BBC Natural History Unit for David Attenborough's new series 'Life of Mammals'. However, in recognition of the importance of the work, since 2002, Born Free has continued support of the MEEM team.

  • Photo Ian redmond
  • Photo Ian redmond

Mount Elgon Facts

Mount Elgon is the eighth highest mountain in Africa and has the largest base area of any free-standing volcano in the world.

The elephants on the mountain are Savannah Elephants (Loxodonta africana africana), not the forest elephants of West & Central Africa

The most frequently visited cave in Mt Elgon is called Kitum ('Place of Ceremonies' in Masai) and it stretches for 160m into the mountain.

As well as the extraordinary elephants, Elgon is home to colobus monkeys, blue monkeys, leopard, giant forest hog, bushbuck, eland, buffalo, duiker, and golden cat.

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