Deep in Mt Elgon National Park, on the Kenya-Uganda border, are five caves that elephants have turned into maternity wards.
Elephants consider the caves a safe place to bring forth new ones because they are secure, have salt for them to lick, and there is plenty of food in their neighbourhood.
The caves are protected by rangers. “The elephants are known to travel from the neighbouring Trans Nzoia County and Uganda to these caves, where they give birth and bring up their young ones,” said Mr Renson Makheti Wanyonyi, Bungoma County tourism executive.
Mt Elgon is one of Kenya’s five water towers. Just like any other maternity facility, the caves have special rooms reserved for calves and a zone for salt licks for the rest of the herds. The caves are Kibalo, Kitum, Makingeny, Chepnyalil and Ngwarisha.
Inside are massive amounts of dried elephant dung which have accumulated over time. The dung serves as beds for elephants, especially during cold nights and in the rainy season.
The caves are surrounded by plenty of trees and grass, and once the calves start walking they accompany the adults into the forest to forage.
The gestation period of an elephant is 22 months. The females care for calves. They carry one calf at a time and have a five-year break between pregnancies. They can live for 60 to 70 years.
The caves are next to small streams that provide the elephants with water. Other animals, including bushbucks and buffalos, also visit the salt licks in search of minerals such as phosphorus, sodium, calcium, iron and zinc, which are important for bone and muscle growth.
Mr Philip Towett, a tour guide, said that the caves are part of volcanic rocks that erupted many years ago forming the minerals.
“The elephants dig the walls of the rock using their tasks and then collect the salt using their trunks. After licking, they go out and drink a lot of water. After sometime, the salt is absorbed in their bodies. The elephants feed on a plant locally known as Ndopoea, which has a slippery substance that helps in digestion. The salt also helps in digestion by smoothening the sides of their stomachs,” Mr Towett said.
The park covers 16,916 hectares. Its main attractions are caves and wild animals, which are under the care of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and Kenya Forest Service.
To access the caves, one must be cleared by KWS at Chorlim Gate in Trans Nzoia or Kaberwa in Bungoma County. Armed KWS game rangers must accompany visitors to ensure their security.
Anyone wishing to visit the park should carry protective (water-proof) clothing as it rains most afternoons and temperatures are low.
The mountain has a moorland with breathtaking views and is ideal for walking, trekking and hiking expeditions.
The park has more than 240 bird species, including the African crowned eagle, Ross’ turaco and the red-fronted parrot.
Mt Elgon can be climbed at any time of the year, but experts caution that one should avoid the park from April to May and August to September, the wettest months.
Mr Makheti said the park was Bungoma County’s main tourism attraction owing to its sceneries. “The county government has started building a tourist gate at the park. We will also build a nature walk all the way from Kaberwa gate to some of the elephant maternity caves before end of the year,” said Mr Makheti.
The elephants, he said, have a corridor in the park that they use to migrate between Bungoma and Trans Nzoia counties. “They mate in Trans Nzoia and deliver in Bungoma,” he said.
Mr Makheti singled out poor road infrastructure and insecurity as the main challenges to the park’s growth. “Mt Elgon has had its fair share of insecurity which has scared away investors and tourists. It is our wish that the national government helps us secure the mountain and open it up to the world.”
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