Today it is almost impossible to see a bongo because less than 100 individuals are thought to live in the wild. Bongo numbers have been declining over the last 40 years because of illegal bush meat, hunting with dogs, and loss of forest habitat from population expansion, illicit forest activities and disease.
Africa’s largest forest antelope, the Eastern mountain bongo, lives in the mountains of Kenya. Mountain bongo occur in the indigenous forests of Mt Kenya, the Aberdares, and limited parts of the Mau Forest complex. The only other bongo species is the smaller Western or lowland bongo that live in Central and West Africa. Back in the 1980s, visitors to the Aberdares mountain range regularly spotted these handsome shy antelopes with twisted horns and white stripes on their reddish-brown coats.
Bongos are now classified as critically endangered, according to the IUCN’s Red List of threatened species. Yet less attention is given to their plight as compared to lion, rhinos and elephants. According to the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) there are about 30,000 elephants, 1,121 rhinos and 2,000 lions in Kenya.
Whilst all solutions have their downfalls, using monitoring, habitat protection and translocations from as far as America may turn the fortunes of these beautiful forest dwellers. After several years of research, the bongo task force and the KWS have completed a 5-year plan for returning bongo to their original forest homes. The document awaits the approval of the KWS board before it can be implemented.
“Bongos historically inhabited the Cherangani Hills and wider areas of the Mau Forest,” says Colin Church, member of the Bongo National Task Force (BNTF) of Kenya. The bongo task force was established in 2010 by the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) with the aim of developing a national conservation plan for bongos. It is made up bongo stakeholders such as the Kenya Forestry Service (KFS), the Bongo Surveillance Project, Rhino Ark Charitable Trust and the Mt Kenya Wildlife Conservancy.
Donald Bunge is the conservancy manager at Mt Kenya Wildlife Conservancy. He is concerned that the population of wild living bongo, “is below the threshold of 250 mature individuals required to make a genetically stable population.”
Monitoring wild populations and their habitats is a vital aspect of bongo conservation. The Bongo Surveillance Programme (BSP) was specifically created for this purpose. Established in 2004, BSP is a community-led initiative that monitors and gathers scientific data on bongos living in the forests.
The bongo surveillance teams comprise of people from living in communities adjacent to the forests. They are trained in GPS technology, monitoring camera traps, traditional tracking, mapping bongo sightings and recording illegal forest activity. Church says, “If this initiative is further developed, then it will be the communities that provide essential security and supervision oversight for bongo.”
Analysis of camera trap footage and forest tracking shows there approximately 50 bongos in the Aberdares mountain, 30 bongos in the Mau forests including a number of calves, and less than 12 animals each in Eburru forest and Mt Kenya.
Another component of bongo survival is habitat protection. The mountain forests are national water towers for human consumption and commercial use. Says Bunge, “If the entire mountain ecosystem is also conserved, the rivers will not dry and seasonal climatic variations will not be so drastic.”
In 2014 the Aberdares mountain forest was secured with 400km of electrified fence in a project spearheaded by Rhino Ark Charitable Trust, a Kenyan conservation organisation. Since then, bongo numbers have increased in the Aberdares especially in the eastern salient region. This is attributed to the protective fence and the presence of armed, experienced KWS rangers who man the forest.
“It sets the mood for other places where bongo need to be reintroduced,” says Church, who is the former chairman of Rhino Ark. The Mau Eburru was fenced in 2014 and Rhino Ark is working to fence the 213,082-hectare Mt Kenya forest.
But the wild populations of bongo require greater support for the long-term survival of the species. Beyond the forests, the Mt Kenya Wildlife Conservancy is the only other place where bongo live in Kenya. The Conservancy has 72 captive bongos, including 4 calves born in 2017, which are intended for relocation back to the forests.
The Conservancy works as a bongo breeding facility and an education centre to promote public understanding of this rare antelope. Thousands of school children and tourists visit the facility each year as part of MKWC’s awareness programme.
But there is a concern that the bongos in the Conservancy are not sufficiently independent of their minders and, consequently, may not survive on their own in the forest. An alterative solution may be found in bongo breeding facilities outside Africa. The International Studbook for Eastern Mountain Bongo listed 827 bongo in living in 127 institutions around the world in 2015.
A population of 200 captive bongo in breeding facilities in the USA are de-habituated to humans and could potentially be translocated to Kenya. Church adds, “They’re in very healthy condition and better able to make the transition into the forests, following a period of essential veterinary observation once they have arrived here.”
In 2003, a group of bongos was shipped from America to the Mt Kenya Wildlife Conservancy but they eventually succumbed to Theleria, a tick-borne disease. However, some of their descendants still live in the conservancy and lessons have been learned from this exercise that would enlighten future translocations.