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'Very special species': Kenya rushes to protect endangered antelope

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These elusive creatures picking their way through the undergrowth are Mountain Bongos.

The white striped, spiral horned and coppery red forest antelopes can only be found in the wild in Kenya.

And they are even a rare sight here.

The Mountain Bongo have been driven to near extinction, according to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature).

Ecologist Mordecai Ogada says it is a "very special species".

"It's endemic to Kenya, highly endangered, less than 100 individuals known to be left in the wild, and that is why this species is really important."

The animals have been hunted for their bush meat and for their prized coat, skull and curved horns.

Human-wildlife interactions, especially the sharing of grazing grounds with livestock, also led to the spread of diseases, such as rinderpest, which decimated their populations.

Some were taken to zoos overseas, and efforts to save the animals have hinged on returning them to Kenya.

"The fascination with that species led people to hunt it, these are sport hunters, and it also led to animal capture and trade which happened with a lot of bongos being captured from here and being traded to zoos, particularly in the United States," says Ogada.

"And the animals that have been brought back now are actually largely descended from bongos that were originally captured here and reared in zoos in the United States, either for display as specimens and some even for hunting. They also rear some of them for hunting over there. So, this business has become sort of less highly regarded."

A sanctuary for the animals

There were only 18 of these shy creatures left in captivity in the U.S.

They were repatriated to Kenya in 2004 to begin the process of breeding them and re-establishing the Mountain Bongo in their natural territory.

But it has been a slow process.

"So, the bongos that are coming back from zoos where the veterinary and husbandry is very different, it is a very sanitized environment. When they come back here, they need a very long time to be able to acclimatise and it takes several generations," explains Philippe Cauviere, chief executive officer at Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy.

"And that is why in 2004 when we brought back the bongos it has taken such a long time to come to where we are today and having a healthy bongo population in the last five years, we had more than 70 births."

The Mountain Bongos are kept at Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy, where keepers feed them with nutritional supplements known as "Bongo Cubes" since they do not have access to the natural vegetation that is normally found in the wild.

In a bid to boost the recovery of the species in the wild, government agency, Kenya Wildlife Service, in conjunction with Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy, launched the Mawingu Bongo Sanctuary as part of the National Mountain Bongo Recovery and Action Plan 2019-2023.

The sanctuary is an 800-acre indigenous forest area located on the slopes of Mount Kenya.

There are plans to release 25 Mountain Bongos into this protected area.

Deforestation decimating habitat

This will help the breeding programme and the rewilding of the animal, as well as reintroducing them into their original habitats, such as Ragati, Eburu, Mau and Aberdare forests.

According to Ogada, habitat protection is key in efforts to save the Mountain Bongo.

"Ultimately what needs to be done is their habitat has to be highly protected and these are the highland forests. So, it wouldn't be much use if we rear them successfully, but we end up with no appropriate habitat in which to release them because I think the objective here is not captivity but to bolster wild populations and rewild them and reintroduce them into this country," he says.

Kenya has spent close to 17 years trying to save the Mountain Bongo from near extinction.

But rewilding the bongos is easier said than done.

With forests in Kenya's highlands rapidly disappearing due to illegal logging and growing human populations, the bongo's habitat is shrinking. 


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