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Born Free USA Global Field Projects

Elephants in Kenya

Published 07/25/11

Elephants make their way
through a Mount Elgon cave.
More Kenya elephant project images

Many land-living herbivores, including elephants, can experience “salt hunger.” To remedy that they congregate around salt licks to supplement their diets with minerals (such as sodium) that are not found in their main sources of food.

Mount Elgon National Park, on Kenya's western border with Uganda, is home to a very special population of elephants. Because there are no salt licks on the surface of Mount Elgon, the elephants must venture into mountain caves to satisfy their sodium fix.

Typically, a group of about 100 elephants — with youngsters in tow — enters a natural cave in Mount Elgon and walks as far as 150 meters into the pitch darkness to find a salt seam in the rock. They excavate the mineral-rich rock with their powerful and versatile tusks, chipping off rough chunks to eat as a vital part of their diet.

Now Born Free USA is helping to pay for their protection, because tragically, they are hunted by ivory poachers. The Mount Elgon elephant population plummeted in the 1980s and 1990s to fewer than 80, when the animals became very nervous of human activity and hence difficult to observe. The area still is very vulnerable to illegal hunting and exploitation of wildlife, but for the past 10 years tragic incidents have been avoided, in no small part due to the presence of the Mount Elgon Elephant Monitoring (MEEM) team.

The MEEM team is operated by the park rangers who follow the elephants both inside and outside the park with the help of local trackers. Support from Born Free USA contributes to the modest but significant allowance paid to these local guides. The money we send — thanks to your generous donations — not only makes the tracking possible, but also provides a valuable link and material benefit to the local community.

The MEEM team announces its presence with elephant greeting noises, or “rumbles.” It is hoped that this procedure — similar to that used by Dian Fossey to habituate gorillas — soon will make it possible for tourists to accompany the rangers and experience the thrill of tracking elephants through the forest. Tourists’ participation also would provide valuable funding for the development and running of the park.

Such positive relations with the community often are cited as the reason why there has been so little poaching activity in the area, despite periods of civil unrest and poaching spikes elsewhere in the region.

The total population of Mount Elgon elephants now is very healthy, and juveniles often are observed — showing that there is a good level of breeding. The single herd that survived when the project began has grown so large that it split into two groups, as probably was the situation before the dark days of poaching.

The combined benefits for understanding the elephant herd, supporting the park activities, contributing to the local economy and promoting relations with the local people make this project a great example of how a little funding can achieve a lot for conservation when it is spent wisely.

Read updates about our Kenya elephant project.

See the Kenya elephant project's photo gallery.

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