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Chesamo elephant maternity, where Jumbos give birth

By John Shilitsa | March 6th 2020
Ogiek community residents showing footpath leading to the Lolwoot caves in Mt. Elgon. [Benjamin Sakwa/Standard]

Each year, elephants arrive in droves at Chesamo, a site on the edge of Mount Elgon Park, to give birth.

For many residents, the pilgrimage, which usually falls between August and December, is a sight to behold as the largest land mammals trek to their maternity ward.

Residents say the jumbos travel in groups of about 100 from as far as Uganda.

Chesamo, a wet and rocky area with scattered trees, becomes the animals’ home for several months. Newborn calves are nursed as their mothers lick salt in nearby caves before disappearing into the densely forested mountain.

“Their visits are a spectacular occurrence only comparable to the great wildebeest migration between the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania and Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya during July through October,” said Ben Naibei, a resident of Chepkoya village.

Mr Naibei, 42, recalled that in 1989, the government set up police posts in his village and neighbouring Kongit to protect the elephants from Ugandan poachers.

On the day The Standard team visited, veterinarians from the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) were attending to an ailing elephant that lay unconscious on the edge of the forest.

The close human presence appeared to agitate the elephants, with locals saying they steered clear of the forest on such days.

Warn children

“Children have been warned about the elephants and most of them know about keeping safe,” said Naibei.

Joyce Chemaroni, 87, who lives near the forest edge, said she had observed the elephants come and go over the years.

“They arrive in large numbers especially during wet months and particularly towards the harvesting season,” said Ms Chemaroni.

She added: “Chesamo is an ordinary place with scarcely any vegetation growing on the rocks. One cannot say why the elephants prefer giving birth here. Maybe it is the serenity of the place.”

The caves, called Lolwoot by locals, where the elephants lick salt also serve as a refuge from the hot sun and during heavy downpours.

Andrew Kiara, 63, said the caves also serve as a meeting point for humans as well as wild and domesticated animals.

The Ogiek elder said people used to live in the caves a long time ago, adding that they had learnt to co-exist with the wildlife.

New Atlantis, a journal of technology and society, describes an elephant birth as a spectacular occasion. The animals, it says, have the longest-known gestation period of any animal, lasting up to 680 days.

The journal details the whole process as well as how newborns are nursed.

“Grandmothers, aunts, sisters, and cousins crowd around the new arrival and its dazed mother, trumpeting and stamping and waving their trunks to welcome the floppy baby who has recently arrived from out of the void, bursting through the border of existence to take its place in an unbroken line stretching back to the dawn of life,” reads the journal in part.

The  journal describes elephants as “highly sociable mammals with consummate level of intelligence.”

It explains that elephants are born with an advanced level of brain development, which they use to recognise the complex social structure of the herd and to feed themselves with their dexterous trunks.

Kenya Forest Service (KFS) Inspector Ezra Korir Barchok said the elephants might prefer Chesamo because the ground is wet and soft, making it ideal for birthing.

“Besides, there is adequate food within their reach and the place gives them a wide view of their environment,” said Mr Barchok.

The inspector said that nowadays the elephants often leave the site with their calves to look for food in open ground. “Food has reduced in Mt Elgon Forest due to human activities. It is not the haven it once used to be.”

Barchok said he was not sure when the elephants started birthing at the site.

“All I can say is that it is something that started a long time ago. Herds of elephants visit the site once a year, but KFS assessment has shown a steady rise in the elephant population, which points to increased births.”

Fresh footprints

Naibei said it was common for residents to wake up to fresh elephant droppings or footprints outside their houses.

The interactions are not always harmless, with the elephants regularly invading farms for a meal of maize, bananas and other crops.

“We use natural ways to scare them away without harming them because we know they are a treasure that could generate wealth for us,” said Naibei.

The locals, he revealed, used bright torches and banged metal drums or iron sheets to great effect. “Elephants fear strange loud sounds and light. When threatened, they hastily retreat into the forest for their safety.”

Naibei said no person had been killed in the area “save for an incident where a man was trampled at Kaboywa where the elephants feed on bamboo shoots.”

Dishon Masaai, 83, also said incidents of human-wildlife conflict were rare.

“Issues only arise when they stray into our farms. KWS rangers usually swing into action when this happens. That has been beneficial because our crops are safe,” he said.

Masaai and Naibei said communities living near the forest should be encouraged to help manage the resource.

“We would like the national and the county governments to protect the elephant maternity ward and the historical caves. They should make them a tourist attraction so that communities can start earning benefits.”

Naibei also urged the Bungoma County Government to build a hotel near the forest to host visitors and create jobs for locals.

Although the salt caves are under the jurisdiction of the KWS and KFS, local guides with knowledge of the animals’ movements are available to take tourists around.

Tourism Executive Renson Wanyonyi had earlier hinted at plans by Governor Wycliffe Wangamati’s administration to erect a fence around the forest and secure its treasures.

According to Mr Wanyonyi, the devolved unit will install a tourist gate and create a special path to allow the elephants easy access to the maternity and caves.

The executive said the county government was determined to give the area a major facelift by fixing the poor road network and addressing insecurity, two issues that have been hindering local tourism.

Barchok said a few cases of poaching had been reported in the forest, particularly near the Uganda border. The poachers, he said, take advantage of the communities living in the forest to hunt the jumbos.

“KFS has embarked on a mission to secure the forest, which involves the relocation of communities living in the forest. After that, we may consider erecting a fence around the forest but that could be very costly.

“We have started replanting trees preferred by the animals while involving locals in conservation efforts through a programme called Community Forest Association,” said the inspector.

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