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Kitum Cave

Mount Elgon, Kenya - Oct. 2008
  • In one of my crazier adventures, I decided to visit Kitum cave which lies on the slopes of Mount Elgon in Kenya. Kitum cave is well known because this is the only place in the world where elephants go underground into the caves at night to scrape the cave walls for the salts the rocks contain. The vegetation in the forest is low in sodium so they come here to satisfy their salt need.
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  • The cave also became well known when it was featured in the book "The Hot Zone" which described two instances of Marburg Hemorrhagic Fever being contracted here. It is a deadly virus that is closely related to Ebola. Symptoms begin with a headache and fever, then your internal organs begin to dissolve and liquefy.There have only been a few case but the mortality rate of anyone catching it here has been 100%
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  • So, the hazards here include:
  • - Catching a rare, Ebola like disease that causes you to bleed out from every orifice in your body
  • - The possibility of encountering irate elephants in an enclosed space.
  • - Other wildlife such as leopards, hyenas and dangerous cape buffalo frequent the caves.
  • -Other biohazards such as Rabies and Leishmaniasis from the bats and hyrax.
  • - Cave collapse. Since these caves are mined by the elephants, they are far less stable than most other caves.
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  • During this trip, I was bitten by one of the Egyptian fruit bats. It bit through my glove and broke the skin so I had to wait a week or so to see if I started to develop any symptoms. If I had, my condition would've gone critical very quickly. Even though I did not become sick, I still had to undergo a lengthy series of rabies vaccinations, just in case.
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    The entrance to Kitum Cave on Mount Elgon.

    The muddy area where buffalo like to wallow. There were tracks everywhere.

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    Our local guides and porters who helped bring all our gear up to the caves, including a truck battery to power our lights.

    Bright yellow pollen floating in the mud pool.

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    Me with my protective gear on. This cave is known for numerous diseases, especially Marburg, a close cousin to the Ebola virus.

    Fresh elephant dung at the back of the cave. Clear evidence of recent visits, probably no more than a day or two old.

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    Fresh wall scrapings. The elephants walk to the back of the cave at night to scrape the walls with their tusks and eat the rocks for the salts they contain.

    Me, examining the new elephant scrapings.

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    Individual tusk marks can clearly be seen.

    A surreal shadow.

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    The rock is made from old pyroclastic flow deposits from back when Mount Elgon was an active volcano.

    Don McFarlane, the bat biologist who joined me on this trip approaches the entrance to Macingenny cave.

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    Looking out towards the entrance.

    Most of the Mount Elgon caves have small waterfalls at their entrances.

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    Small, parasitic insects clustered together on the cave walls. These bedbug like insects feed off of the blood of the bats that roost in the cave.

    A closer look at the insects. It is not known if these insects can transfer Marburg virus from bats to humans.

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    A fresh hyena print just inside Kitum cave. We spent the night in there and were worried about the possibility of an encounter with a pack of hyenas.

    The view from our campsite. We hoped to spot elephants at night with our night vision cameras but none showed up while we were there.

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    It doesn't look like much but the small nick on my thumb is a bat bite. An Egyptian fruit bat bit through my glove and caused a tremendous amount of concern, especially since it is unknown how Marburg gets into the human body.

    A pair of Rock Hyrax. These little creatures nest at the mouth of Kitum cave and the sand flies that are found near their nests can transmit leishmaniasis. A disease that causes large, disfiguring sores in the victim. They don't look so cute now...

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    Heavy rains cause the Mount Elgon road to become a quagmire of mud.

    It took over a dozen men over three hours to get our truck out of the mud.