"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.
Mount Elgon is one of the hidden gems of Kenya. Sitting on the Ugandan border 100km North of Lake Victoria, it is home to a very special population of elephants. Numbering only about 100 individuals, this population was hit hard by ivory poaching in the 1980s and 90s. Now Born Free is helping to pay for their protection, and for the development of this beautiful National Park.
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 (eg 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 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. The elephants enter these caves, as whole families with youngsters in tow, 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 these hidden gems as a vital dietary supplement.
In 2001 Born Free started funding the Mount Elgon Elephant Monitoring Team - the MEEM Team - which had been initiated by the BBC Natural History Unit to learn more about the elephants prior to filming them for Sir David Attenborough's new series '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 used 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 we 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 declined dramatically. We also provided a TV and video to the park for use in their education and local outreach activities. The park is not on the usual tourist routes, but after featuring in the BBC's David Attenborough's Life Of Mammals on 4th December 2002 and the Natural World 19th October 2003, it is hoped that there will be more visitors and the park will be able to expand its infrastructure, services and community work.
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.