Five mountain bongos have been released into a sanctuary in Kenya, a milestone in the fight for the animals’ survival with fewer than 100 left in the wild
Considered critically endangered, the chestnut-coloured mountain bongo is one of the largest forest antelopes and native to the equatorial forests of Mount Kenya, Eburu, Mau and Aberdares. IUCN predicts their numbers will probably continue to decline without direct action. A recent wildlife census in Kenya counted just 96 mountain bongos in the wild.
Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy (MKWC) and Kenya Wildlife Service and Kenya Forest Service have been leading a breeding and rewilding program for the last 20 years.
Eighteen mountain bongos (four male and 14 female) were repatriated from 14 zoos across the US to MKWC in Nanyuki, near Mount Kenya. The five animals released on Wednesday into the 314-hectare (776-acre) Mawingu mountain bongo sanctuary are descendants of the US herd.
The subspecies once roamed in large numbers but has suffered unprecedented population decline since the 1950s due to poaching, the wildlife trade, predation and disease, in particular, a rinderpest outbreak in the 1980s.
Dr Robert Aruho, head of veterinary services at MKWC, said: “The real work now begins. We must ensure that the animals released can thrive and survive in the sanctuary and, eventually, the wild.
“This is the culmination of dedicated conservation work that has spanned almost two decades. It marks the single most significant step towards the survival of the mountain bongo in history.”
The pristine sanctuary consists of a natural forest that provides an extensive range to continue releasing the mountain bongos in preparation for their survival in the wild. The government’s long-term vision is to achieve a population of 750 in Kenya by 2050.
Every year, 10 mountain bongos will be released into the sanctuary in groups of five every six months. It is estimated that by 2025, the sanctuary will have 50 to 70 fully rewilded mountain bongos.
Tourism and wildlife minister, Najib Balala, said: “The mountain bongo is one of Kenya’s most iconic animals, is critically endangered and can only be found in Kenya. The opening of the sanctuary is a critical step to help achieve [the rewilding process].”
Weaning the animals from human dependence requires technical skills, patience and commitment to allow the animals to adapt independently. It also requires an appropriate habitat, foliage and enough space to exhibit normal wild animal behavior.
According to wildlife experts in Kenya, the long-term success of the release and eventual survival of the animals in the wild largely depends on local communities’ support in surrounding areas, since most of the threats that caused the population decline were human-driven.
The conservancy is working with these communities to restore degraded areas within Mount Kenya’s forests through a reforestation programme. Under the partnership, the conservancy has involved 3,000 community members in planting more than 35,000 indigenous tree species, with plans to plant another 5,000 trees this year.
Julius Kamau, chief conservator at Kenya Forest Service, said: “Collaboration is key for the successful protection of any endangered species. We will nurture these vital partnerships to achieve our shared goal of rewilding the rare antelopes, animals that hold great national significance in Kenya.”