Kitum Cave

A salty cave excavated by elephants and the location of a deadly disease vector


When the Kitum cave was first discovered the many marks, scratches and furrows along its walls were assumed to have been the work of picks wielded by ancient Egyptians searching for gold or diamonds. In fact, the excavated sections of the cave are the result of something altogether much stranger.

The Kitum cave is found on Mount Elgon, an extinct shield volcano and the cave itself developed as the result of cooling volcanic rock. The cave which extends some 600 feet into the mountain has walls covered in salt, and it is here that the mysterious cave diggers reveal themselves.

Each night for hundreds (possibly thousands) of years animals have traveled into the cave in the dead of night to use it as a giant salt lick. Buffaloes, antelope, leopards, hyenas, and most of all elephants bumble blindly through the cave (the elephants often bump their heads in the process) making their way to the salty walls of the cave. It is the elephants that have done the digging.

Using their massive tusks they scrape the the salt, the elephants pull off chunks of the walls to crush and lick up the salt. Over the centuries this has resulted in a noticeable increase in the size of the cave and walls covered in tusk marks. The trip to the cave is not without dangers and there is a deep crevasse into which many younger, more inexperienced elephants have fallen leaving behind an elephant graveyard.

The Kitum cave is more recently famous for a very different sort of lifeform, a deadly virus. In 1980 and again in 1987 visitors to the cave contracted Marburg virus, a deadly virus very similar to Ebola. The cave and Marburg virus rose to notoriety when it was featured in bestseller "The Hot Zone." It is believed that the bats in the cave may carry the virus and that their powdered guano may act as the disease vector.

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    Mount Elgon, Mount Elgon National Park, Kenya
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Diggers of the Kitum Cave
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