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Saving Africa’s Largest Forest Antelope from Extinction

Kenyan conservation groups coming together to bolster wild Eastern bongo populations

Until recently, it had been many years since safari-goers in Kenya saw a bongo antelope in the wild. But in August 2017, a group of tourists in the Aberdares mountain range of central Kenya were caught by surprise when a large bongo walked in front of their vehicle. It quickly vanished into the trees before anybody could take a picture.

photo of eastern bongoPhoto courtesy of Mt. Kenya Wildlife Conservancy Fewer than 100 Eastern bongo are believed to remain in the wild, something a Kenyan taskforce is working to change.

The Eastern bongo, also know as the mountain bongo, is Africa’s largest forest-dwelling antelope. These striking russet-colored antelopes with white stripes and twisted horns are endemic to the upland forests of Kenya and are quite timid by nature. They are adapted to woodland browsing and love to eat rotten wood. They are also critically endangered, according to the IUCN’s Red List of threatened species, and fewer than 100 individuals are thought to live in the wild.

Despite their threatened status, seemingly little attention is given to their plight as compared to other animals like rhino, elephants, or lions. By comparison, there are approximately 30,000 elephants, 1,121 rhinos, and 2,000 lions in the wild in Kenya. But if a group of bongo-focused conservationists has their way, the Eastern bongo may soon receive the attention it deserves.

“My belief is that bongo arethe flagship species of the high indigenous forests of Kenya,” says Colin Church, a board member with Kenya’s Bongo National Task Force (BNTF). The task force was formed by the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) with the ultimate goal of returning bongo back into the mountain forests. The task force was formed in 2010 to create a national conservation strategy and advise the KWS on bongo conservation. It brings together experts from the various organizations working, through their own initiatives, to protect bongos and their habitats. These include the Kenya Forestry Service, Rhino Ark Charitable Trust, the Mt Kenya Wildlife Conservancy, the Bongo Surveillance Project and KWS. 

Over the last 40 years, bongo numbers have dropped drastically because of snaring, illicit bushmeat poaching, habitat destruction, population expansion, and diseases transmitted from livestock. Today, small scattered groups live in the Aberdares mountain, around Mt. Kenya and Mt. Eburru, and within the Mau forest complex, but historically they inhabited other Kenyan mountains as well. 

To prevent further decline, regular monitoring of wild populations is vital and the support of forest-neighboring communities has become key. The native forests that provide habitat for bongos are surrounded by communities of mostly small-scale farmers who subsist on the rich terrain.

The Bongo Surveillance Programme (BSP) is a community-led initiative to monitor and gather data on bongo in the four mountain forests where they live. Teams of locals have trained in the use of GPS technology, monitoring of camera traps, traditional tracking, mapping bongo sightings, and noting illegal forest activity. The bongo trackers are able to collect information from forest areas not frequented by the wildlife authorities. If the program can be further developed, Church believes that “It will be the communities that provide essential security and supervision oversight for bongos.”

Another component of wild bongo survival is habitat protection. In 2014, the Aberdares National Park mountain forest was secured with 400km of electrified fence. This was a joint project of the KWS, Kenya Forestry Services, and Rhino Ark, a Kenyan conservation organization that came up with the idea of fencing the forest ostensibly to protect the threatened black rhino. Subsequently, bongo numbers have increased within the park, especially in the eastern region of the Aberdares where armed rangers patrol the forest.

“Thanks to KWS protective machinery, and because no one is disturbing these animals, they are re-breeding on their own which is amazing,” says Church of the estimated 50 bongo living in the Aberdares. He adds, “It sets the mood for other places where bongo need to be re-introduced.” Mau Eburru forest in Western Kenya was fenced in 2015 and work is ongoing to similarly secure the 213,000 hectares forest of Mt. Kenya.

Outside of forests, the Mt. Kenya Wildlife Conservancy (MKWC) is the only estate where bongo occur in a semi-wild condition. The Conservancy, which is a member of the bongo task force, has 72 bongos. Four calves born were born in 2017, which raises hopes for the survival of the species. “The population in the wild is below the threshold of 250 mature individuals required to make a genetically stable population,” said Donald Bunge, the conservancy manager, emphasizing the need to successfully reintroduce additional individuals.

MKWC was originally a holding ground for export bongo after wildlife hunting was banned in 1978. But there is concern that the conservancy animals are not independent enough from their minders to survive alone in the forest when released. As yet, none have been introduced back into the forests. 

A more viable solution for restocking forests with bongo might be found abroad. According to the international stud book for eastern mountain bongo, there are about 750 bongos living in parks in Europe, North America, Australia, and the Middle-East. Some of them occur in wildlife institutions that participate in programs for endangered species survival. Wildlife experts say that some 200 bongos in ranches in the USA are sufficiently de-habituated to humans and are in very good health for translocation to Kenya.  

Translocation has been considered before. In 2003, a group of bongo was sent from the US to the Mt. Kenya Conservancy but the animals contracted a tick-borne disease called Theilaria. “None of the original shipment of breeding animals is alive now though some of their progeny form part of the Conservancy animals today. However, many lessons have been learned,” says Church. 

Rebuilding populations of wild bongo is also linked to the sustainable use of montane habitats, which are threatened deforestation to meet demand for farmland, fuel, and livestock grazing. More than 50 percent of Kenya is semi-arid and traditional bongo habitats happen to be national ‘water towers’, a term first coined by Rhino Ark. The mountain ecosystems attract convectional rainfall, moderate the effects of climate change, and create runoff into river systems that water dry lowland areas. Protecting these habitats not only helps bongo — it also contributes to food security and economic growth.

Says Church, “Taking the bongo back to the indigenous areas where they come from is not only an amazing conservation story but a huge boost to the national effort to conserve our forests.”

After several years of research, the bongo task force together with KWS has completed a 5-year national bongo management strategy to return bongo to their original forest homes. The document awaits the approval of the KWS board. Adoption of the plan would greatly boost the modest but important victories achieved in protecting wild populations. 

Says Donald Bunge, “We have inherited the bongo from those who lived before us. Therefore, we have a national responsibility to conserve for them future generations.” 

Correction: An earlier version of this article described the Eastern bongo as Africa's largest antelope. The eastern antelope is not Africa's largest antelope. Rather, it is Africa's largest forest antelope.

Kari Mutu
Kari Mutu is an independent writer and special correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya. She writes for various media in East Africa on the environment and wildlife, arts, culture, and tourism, as well as inspirational stories of people making a difference in these fields. Mutu is particularly motivated to create a better understanding and awareness of these issues as people move further away from the natural world and their heritage.

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