Saving vital mineral licks that support biodiversity

They are a nutritional lifeline to wildlife, livestock and humans around Mt Kenya, but are disappearing

In Summary

• Salt licks in Embu and Nyeri are drying up, while one in Meru is thriving

• Stakeholders blame human activities, overgrazing and climate change 

Whenever Solomon Ireri, 80, goes to quench his thirst at the slow-seeping salty water springs known as the Gogo Salt Licks, he retraces a path his ancestors took hundreds, probably thousands of years ago. 

The founder of the Embu tribe, Mwenendega, had taken out his cows to lick the salty waters of Gogo. There he met his wife Nthara, and a tribe was born.

The account, given by historian Prof Mwaniki Kabeca in his book Embu/Mbeere Historical Texts, demonstrates the central place of the salt lick in the lives of people and animals in this community. There would be no tribe without the salts.

However, most of these salt licks have disappeared. The historic Gogo is among the few remaining spots in Mt Kenya region with natural deposits of mineral salts. But that may not be the case for long.

The salt lick, located near Mukuuri Township, about 37km from Embu town, covers about three acres, now reserved for community use.  

However, Ireri, who has lived near Gogo all his life, says it has deteriorated compared to the past, when the land had several salty springs, accommodating livestock and people from all the surrounding villages.

“We hardly graze our livestock here at Gogo the way we used to. This is because the salt lick is in a poor state. The springs were many but due to soil erosion, the majority are covered,” he said.

Most wild animals no longer visit the salt lick, known as Munyu in Kiembu, because of the fencing of the nearby Mt Kenya Forest. However, a wide variety of birds still fly hundreds of kilometres to the area, and dik-diks from the nearby Kirimiri Forest also come at night.

Ireri said the number of tourists  visiting Gogo has also dwindled because there are few wild animals to see .    

“People from various destinations used to visit this area, something that used to be so productive to us since we could sell them fruits and other farm products,” he said.

Suleiman Nyaga walks about 4km from his Kathande village twice a month to drink the Gogo mineral waters that he credits for his strong, healthy body.

He is about 50 years old and does not remember ever falling sick. He attributes this to the salty waters.

“I would also request the county government of Embu to ensure it protects this area to ensure the salt lick is in a good state. This is a rare resource and neglecting it would leave us regretting later,” he said.

“High consumption of the mineral lick will solve more health problems, and the county government will give the resource a health and also tourism approach.”

There is archaeological evidence such spots have drawn people, birds and animals for hundreds of years to lick minerals and supplement their nutrition.


David Adede, a geologist, explained there are different types of natural salt licks.

Underground salt deposits can be exposed at the surface through erosion or geological activity. Rainwater then dissolves the salt and carries it to the surface, forming salt-rich soil or exposed salt deposits.

For mineral springs, such as Gogo, water flows through underground rocks, picking up dissolved minerals.

“When these mineral-rich springs reach the surface and evaporate, concentrated mineral deposits are left behind,” said Adede, who works with Rock Link Geological Consultants Ltd.

He said local climate patterns play a crucial role in the formation and persistence of salt licks. In arid or semi-arid regions with limited water, high evaporation rates concentrate salts in specific areas, such as depressions or dried-up water bodies.

“Seasonal rainfall or flooding events can contribute to the formation of temporary salt licks by washing salts from surrounding areas and depositing them in lower-lying regions,” he said.

“These climatic factors greatly influence the concentration and availability of salts, attracting herbivores in search of essential minerals.”

There is also another type. Some plants accumulate salts in their tissues or excrete them near their roots. Over time, these salt-rich plant residues contribute to the formation of salt licks. 

“Herbivores seeking essential minerals may preferentially graze or congregate in areas with higher salt concentrations, further enhancing the development of these mineral-rich sites,” he said.

Adede said different natural licks may have varying concentrations of sodium and additional minerals, such as calcium, potassium and trace elements. Which is why some animals travel long distances to specific spots. 

“Animals have species-specific preferences and specific habitat requirements when it comes to salt licks. Different animal species may favour salt licks with varying mineral compositions, depending on their dietary needs and physiological requirements,” he said.


Veterinary Services director Dr Obadiah Njagi told the Star herbivores such as cattle seek out salt licks with high sodium content to fulfil their physiological needs.

“Salt links are a supplementary source of minerals (especially important in zero-grazed animals) that the body requires to be able to utilise whatever other feed an animal takes, and is also important in various other body functions,” he said. 

Adede said many salt licks are currently found in forested areas, and when these habitats are destroyed, the availability of salt licks for wildlife can be reduced. Deforestation also alters natural water flow patterns, which can affect the formation and maintenance of salt licks.

“Intensive grazing by livestock can also alter the vegetation composition, reducing the availability of nutrient-rich plants that contribute to salt lick formation. Additionally, the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides in agriculture can affect the quality and composition of soil and vegetation around salt licks,” he said.

The geologist added that human activities, such as building roads, settlements and other infrastructure, can disrupt natural drainage patterns and alter water availability, which can affect the formation and accessibility of salt licks.

“Additionally, the disturbance caused by construction can deter wildlife from accessing or using existing salt licks,” he said.     

Kagaari North MCA Muchangi Mwariama has since constructed a road headed to Gogo.

“It is an important resource for Embu people, and for biodiversity, so we need to conserve it and ensure people and animals can access it,” he said.

Embu Environment executive Florence Musyoka told the Star the county government will identify other mineral licks in the county and preserve them.

Musyoka said she will ensure enough trees are planted in areas hosting mineral licks to prevent the drying up of the salty springs during hot seasons.

“I’m in preparation to ensure all the salt licks are identified and protected to ensure they serve their intended purpose and under proper conditions,” she said.

Musyoka said the main challenge facing salt licks in the county is encroachment, leading to soil erosion.

“Encroachment is the monster facing these resources. We urge residents engaging in any activities that are endangering the natural resources to stop and contribute to their conservation instead,” she said.

She said her move is in line with President William Ruto's target of planting 15 billion trees by 2032 to restore forest cover as well as preserve natural resources that require trees for their survival.

“In our mission to plant more than 100,000 trees from the President’s directive, we want to ensure our natural resources that require trees receive enough numbers,” Musyoka said.

She said Gogo is among the areas she will ensure are restored to restore relationships among wildlife, people and nature.

“We live within nature and that’s why it is our responsibility to offer protection,” she said.


While some licks, like the Matuto salt licks near Kiganjo in Nyeri county, are already dying, the story is different for Tharu mineral lick in Meru county. The area has received consistent protection from the county government, which designated it as a natural reserve.

Located near Tharu Market, about 200m off the Ndagene-Nkubu highway, the mineral lick covers about seven acres of shrubs and features several springs producing salty waters.

This is where Muriungi Mutairishe, a 38-year-old resident of Tharu village, likes to spend his afternoons, slowly chewing Muguka (a variant of khat). He washes the juices down his throat with the salty waters from the salt lick.

“We’re grateful to our county government for protecting this land,” he said.

“We have heard of such places being grabbed for other purposes but for this one, we can proudly say it brings relief through its nutritional value.”

The salt lick has four different springs, one of which is used by the general population and the other by the Akurino believers.  Another spring has been set aside for livestock and a separate one atop a rock for elephants from the nearby Mt Kenya forest. 

“We found the mineral lick here and so it was with our grandparents. We always receive people from different corners of the country. They all come with cans to carry home with them this God-given water,” Muriungi said.

Rose Kinanu, another Tharu resident, attributed the vast development growth in Tharu market to the salt lick, which she said hosts a huge number of guests daily.

“Our market is fast developing due to the finances the guests bring along in exchange for basic commodities,” she said.

She says the salt lick has nourished her family for years.

“I use the salt lick to cook every food in my house. I’m lured by its nutritional value, taste and natural scent that comes along,” Kinanu said.

Meru Natural Resources executive Jackson Muthamia said the salt lick has played a crucial role in driving the region's development.

“By protecting it, the county government is promoting locally led developments,” he said.         

This article was produced with support from JRS Biodiversity Foundation and Media for Environment Science Health and Agriculture (MESHA).

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