Inside the caves Kenya wants listed as World Heritage site

One hosts Africa's oldest burial site dating 78,000 years ago, while others host world's last plant species

In Summary

• Kenya was in the running with three sites in Kilifi with unique plant, animal species

• The sites also have spiritual, agricultural and economic value, hence worth preserving

To many Kenyans, caves are dingy, sometimes dangerous places often associated with Mau Mau hideouts. But for many species of plants, animals and insects that live strange lives, this is home.

And for three-year-old ‘Mtoto’, one cave has been home for the last 78,000 years.

In 2013, archeologists who were excavating the Panga ya Saidi cave in Kilifi county found bits of human skeleton.

"At this point, we weren't sure what we had found. The bones were just too delicate to study in the field," said Dr Emmanuel Ndiema of the National Museums of Kenya. "So we had a find that we were pretty excited about, but it would be a while before we understood its importance."

The entire skeleton was fully exposed in 2017, with legs carefully tucked up against a tiny chest.

Tests done at the National Research Centre on Human Evolution (Cenieh) in Spain confirmed this was a 2.5- to three-year-old boy, who was later nicknamed 'Mtoto,' meaning 'child' in Swahili.

Microscopic analysis of the bones and surrounding soil confirmed that the body was rapidly covered after burial and that decomposition took place in the pit. In other words, Mtoto was intentionally buried shortly after death.

Scientific dating securely placed Mtoto's life at 78,000 years ago. An article published in the journal Nature said this is the earliest known human burial in Africa.


Panga Ya Saidi is one of the three caves that the National Museums of Kenya strongly lobbied for inclusion into the Unesco World Heritage Site List this year. The others are Mawe Meru and Chasimba caves – all in Kilifi county.

NMK said Panga Ya Saidi is not just important as the earliest known burial site in Africa but has agricultural significance because seeds of African crops, such as pearl millet, have been found there. Non-native animals, such as black rat, and artefacts, such as marine shell beads, glass beads and Tana ware pottery, have also been documented.

Mwanza Ndoro, a 60-year-old Kilifi Kaya elder from Kauma location, where Panga Ya Saidi Cave is located, says the cave was an important hideout during the struggle for Independence in the 1950s.      

“The Arabs and colonialists, when they brought taxes, our old men used to hide there to avoid taxes. This is the history of Kauma,” he said.

“There are also traditions around the cave, and that’s why we preserve it. There are prayers done there. Especially when someone wrongs you, you can go to offer prayers there. Such traditions are still ongoing.”

Panga ya Saidi lies about 15km from the Indian Ocean in the Dzitsoni limestone hills.

Thirteen rivers extend across the area, creating floodplains and alluvial valleys. The site's environmental surroundings are part of an overall transition from low coastal plains to coastal uplands to high coastal plains.

According to the NMK, the cave and its surroundings are an important tourist attraction. NMK collaborates with Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, of Germany, for research into the cave’s past.

“The partnership has helped to establish the significance of Panga ya Saidi for understanding the Middle to the Later Stone Age technological transition,” NMK said in its submission to Unesco in June.

“As well as understanding the proliferation of symbolic objects such as bone tools, engraved ochre and beads in Late Pleistocene eastern Africa.”

Ndoro said these research activities have brought employment opportunities.

“There is research that’s ongoing there for one year now, and it brings employment to our young people for one year. We also get tourists who pay the owners of the land, creating a source of income,” Ndoro says.

The cave lies on privately owned land, which has made conservation difficult.

“It has not become communal land. So only the owners of the land get paid by the tourists,” Ndoro said.

"The county government had allocated money for the cave, about Sh5 million, but because a memorandum has not been made on the ownership, the money was reallocated.”


A few kilometres away, through roads partly flooded by the El Nino rains, you reach the Chasimba Cave in Chonyi, Kilifi South.

It is a labyrinth of stones that offers visitors a visual feast. The layers of stones form canvases of different designs, with random openings that let in light and look like Cathedral domes.

Clinging to Chasimba rocky outcrops are 30 plant species that are classified as threatened on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

The cave and its outcrop are on the Key Biodiversity Areas, a global list developed by a partnership that comprises BirdLife International, IUCN, Global Environment Facility and the World Wildlife Fund.

“It forms part of the unique outcrop ecosystem with unique and endemic biodiversity, including rare and threatened species found nowhere else in the world,” NMK said in making a case for Chasimba's inclusion in the Unesco World Heritage site list.

The cave area hosts the world’s only Cola octoloboides and Euphorbia wakefieldii, two endangered plant species found only in Kenya.

The Tarenna drummondii, (also called 'Drummond's Bush-Violet', among many other common names), a small shrub native to Kenya, is also found here.

Cave chairman Nicholas Bandari told the Star if the cave is not protected, the world will also lose these plants.

“Inside the caves, there are no wild animals and you can walk inside, but some compartments are very dark,” he said.

“The cave is important because it has lifted our lives. We have done research about it and some visitors come here and we take them around the caves and this gives us some income.”

A tree nursery set up by villagers at Chasimba Cave.
A tree nursery set up by villagers at Chasimba Cave.
Image: John Muchangi

He believes Chasimba has the potential to draw more visitors than Fort Jesus, a world heritage site in Mombasa. The locals have created an association to help market the cave. Locals pay Sh500 and foreigners Sh1,000 to visit the cave.

“The cave hosts many cultural rites that are conducted here. For instance, there are prayers conducted here for people with problems and for those who are sick to be healed.”

However, Bandari said the area around Chasimba is suffering deforestation and in sunny weather, it is sweltering hot.

“There’s a lot of deforestation that’s not legal, but we have been unable to stop it,” he said.

“Women continue to cut trees for firewood. We have planted many trees but before they grow, people come and cut them down for firewood.”

Bandari says the proposed listing as a Unesco site is important to ensure the protection of the cave. He says it shelters many wild animals, but because it is not protected, these animals are also being killed for bushmeat.

“We had written to the county government for them to know it’s a good place for conservation and plans are ongoing for this. Some animals take shelter here, and we have removed many traps used to kill them,” he said.


NMK also applied for the neighbouring Mawe Meru Cave to be listed in the World Heritage Site list.

“Mawe Meru houses endemic animal and plant communities, some of which have been mapped out by scientists, revealing the presence of unique types of plants, which are only found in this rock outcrop the world over,” NMK said.

The cave ecosystem also hosts some of the animals, such as bats and hyraxes, both tree and rock hyraxes.

However, it is facing a challenge brought about by large-scale limestone mining, which threatens this biodiversity.

“It is common knowledge that mining through blasting weakens the geologic integrity of rock formations,” NMK said while seeking Unesco listing.

“Blast-mining is a great risk to this site and the area around Mawe Meru that can lead to the loss of flora and fauna within this ‘island’ setting and also to the community living around the rocky outcrop.”

Agneta Karembo, the chief officer in charge of culture and social services, Kilifi county, says cave ecosystems are underrepresented in conservation planning and implementation in Kenya. The county is trying to change that, she said.

“It was a privilege as a county to have these caves to be proposed for Unesco heritage site list,” she told the Star.

“This means they would be given national and international status to attract tourists from all over the world.”

Karembo said in 2022-23, the county budgeted for the protection of the caves, but no project was carried out because the caves are on private land.

“Some people said our grandparents lived here. We want the entire community to be part of the conservation of this area,” she said.

“We have a strategy for communities around to gain ownership because if the cave is owned by one person, it will be hard to conserve. But if it's communal, it will benefit everyone. We work together with the national government and national museums.”

Karembo shares her experience visiting the Chasimba cave recently.

“It’s quite big, I was told there was a huge snake and also a needle that if it pricks you, it’s very dangerous,” she said.

“We want to fence there and clean it so that it’s safe. It can be a very traumatising experience right now. We want to have lights inside and security people.”

Karembo said once the ownership of the caves returns to the community, then they will properly be marketed for tourism.

According to research, caves are not only important for tourism but are also home to unique plants, small animals and insects that are blind. If caves are destroyed, some of them may go extinct.

A section of the cave that harbours fruit bats
A section of the cave that harbours fruit bats
Image: FILE


The biodiversity found within cave ecosystems may also contribute to disease regulation by maintaining a delicate balance between different species.

For instance, most bats in Kenya live in caves. These creatures are vital in controlling insect populations, some of which are disease vectors like mosquitoes. By keeping these populations in check, bats indirectly help prevent the spread of diseases, such as malaria and dengue fever.

“Caves dot many parts of the planet and contain extraordinary levels of biological diversity, including endemic species found in only one or a few caves,” says Rodrigo Medellin a paper published in 2017 in Biological Conservation journal.

“Unfortunately, many species that rely on caves are facing extinction risks.”

The paper is titled: Conservation relevance of bat caves for biodiversity and ecosystem services. 

Unesco's World Heritage Committee, made up of representatives from 21 member states, met on September 17 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to inscribe new sites on the World Heritage List.

The organisation began the World Heritage List in 1978 and has since listed more than 1,000 sites for protection.

The basic criterion for inclusion of a property on the prestigious list is that it must be of 'outstanding universal value'.

Unesco meets once a year to update the list. The inclusion is seen by many countries as crucial for tourism and the ability to source funding for the preservation of sites.

Seven Kenyan sites are already on the list: Lake Turkana National Parks, Mount Kenya National Park, Lamu Old Town, Mijikenda Kaya Forests, Fort Jesus Museum, Lake System in the Rift Valley and the Thimlich Ohinga Cultural Landscape in Migori.

This year, 53 new sites globally were vying for inclusion on the list.

Observers said the outcome this year was also notable for the places not approved for protection.

On September 25, the Unesco committee announced only 13 sites made it to the list. The three Kilifi caves were not successful.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Being included on the list of world heritage sites can also hurt the local population.

Listing often leads to increased tourism, which may put a strain on the site's infrastructure, environment and local communities.

This means Kenya’s unsuccessful bid perhaps gives it time to prepare the infrastructure for Kilifi Caves, before listing one day.

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

WATCH: The latest videos from the Star