Conservationists step up efforts to protect endangered Mountain Bongo


Rare Species Conservatory Foundation founder and president Dr Paul Reillo and other conservation stakeholders at the opening of a 250-acre sanctuary for Mountain Bongo and Black Rhino in Meru forest on Tuesday, January 23, 2024. [ Phares Mutembei, Standard]

Journeying along the rugged, slippery road to Ragati Forest in the heart of the Mt Kenya ecosystem leads to the breathtaking wonder of nature.

Towering trees, reaching skyward with vibrant green canopies, create a mesmerizing landscape.

Columbus monkeys swing gracefully from branch to branch, their playful antics adding to the enchantment of the forest.

The air is filled with the melodious chirping of birds while the midday sun's rays filter through the dense foliage, casting dappled shadows on the forest floor.

Amidst this natural splendor, conservationists from government and non-governmental organisations converge to witness a momentous occasion, the inauguration of the Ragati Forest Mountain Bongo security site.

This collaborative effort stands as a beacon of hope for the endangered Mountain Bongo, with less than 100 remaining in the wild worldwide.

"Today, amidst the scenic beauty of Ragati Forest, we celebrate a significant milestone, the launch of the Ragati-chehe Forest Mountain Bongo security site," declared Christian Lambrechts, Executive Director of Rhino Ark.

He spoke as he, alongside Clement Lanthier, President and the CEO of the Wilder Institute/Calgary Zoo, cut the ribbon, to officially unveil the plaque.

This site consists of six iron-sheet huts painted green, a wooden watchtower constructed atop ancient towering trees, solar panels, a water tank, and a kitchen, among other structures.

Its purpose is to support a joint security unit composed of Kenya Forest Services (KFS), Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), and community scouts.

Their role is to oversee the safety and security of the forest from this remote base, ensuring the protection of the Bongo population and any reintroduced in the future.

The joint security force will venture deep into the forest, utilising it as a strategic hub. Additionally, the camera trap team will operate from this site, enhancing surveillance efforts.

The Mountain Bongo, found exclusively in Kenya, is a critically endangered species, endemic to various regions, including Aberdare, Mount Kenya, Cheranganis Hills, and the Mau Forests Complex.

Mountain Bongos at Aberdare National Park. [Courtesy Rhino Ark]

Its population has plummeted drastically over the years, primarily due to habitat loss, poaching, and human encroachment.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list classifies the Mountain Bongo as critically endangered, reflecting the highest level of threat.

"In the past, Mt. Kenya forest teemed with Mountain Bongos, but today, the population has dwindled to just a handful of individuals," lamented Lambrechts, echoing the concerns of Donna Sheppard, Conservation Program Manager at the Wilder Institute Calgary Zoo.

"Once, these magnificent creatures roamed freely across Kenya, but rampant hunting in the mid-20th century decimated their numbers."

Trapping of the Bongo in the early 1900s likely contributed to the decline of the Mountain Bongo population.

"In those years, I indulged in relentless hunting in the Eburu Forest, targeting various wildlife, including Bongos," he admits.

"Bongos, elusive and prized, were particularly challenging to hunt due to their secretive nature. Despite the difficulty, I managed to claim the lives of several Bongos, drawn by the unique sweetness of their meat derived from their selective diet of certain plants," says Solomon Murithi, now serving as the Head Tracker for the Bongo Surveillance Project in the Mau Eburu forest, reflects on his past as a notorious hunter in the 1980s.

Murithi recalls occasions when he and other hunters were approached by individuals, often white men, seeking assistance in live trapping Bongos.

Within the Bongo ranges in the forest, they would dig a series of pits and set up a fence made of bamboo poles to funnel animals.

The pits were camouflaged with bamboo leaves, and any animal stepping onto them would fall in.

These pitfall systems were primarily used for live capture, especially for animals destined for zoos.

"Live trapping was no easy task," Murithi explains.

"It required several people to dig pits deeper than six feet. When a Bongo fell into one, we would retrieve it with a cage. We were paid five shillings, a considerable amount at the time. Over that period, I recall capturing at least six Bongos. They were not captured frequently, and I later heard they were being taken to overseas countries, but I didn't care as long as I was paid," he says.

Donna notes there are approximately 400 to 500 Mountain Bongos in captivity globally, compared to less than 100 remaining in the wild in Kenya.

Now, conservationists are collaborating to offer hope for the future of the endangered animals, with plans to potentially reintroduce captive Bongos to their natural habitat.

To address the alarming decline, the Kenya Wildlife Service has forged partnerships with various organisations, including Rhino Ark, Kenya Forest Service, Ragathi River Management, and local communities represented by the Ragathi and Chehe CFAs.

A key partner in these efforts is the Wilder Institute Calgary Zoo, which has been providing substantial financial support for Mountain Bongo programming since 2018.

"For the past 11 years, we have forged a steadfast partnership with Rhino Ark, working hand in hand towards this common goal," said Lanthier.

"Establishing a strong foundation rooted in community involvement is paramount as we embark on the journey of reintroducing and reestablishing the Mountain Bongo population."

"Currently, we are in the initial stages, employing camera traps and conducting forest patrols alongside Rhino Ark to estimate the remaining population. It has been many years since the last sighting in Mt Kenya, but the vastness and density of the forest leave room for hope that there may still be Bongos present, albeit elusive," he says.

While progress may seem gradual, Lanthier emphasized the importance of building momentum towards their objective.

"We have a wealth of experience spanning almost three decades, collaborating with communities in North America and Africa," he explains.

The Wilder Institute, a conservation arm of the Calgary Zoo, was established precisely for initiatives like this, to support communities in restoring populations of species that have faced extinction threats.

"Here in Ragati Forest, the Mountain Bongo holds our focus. We have observed a receptive attitude from the community, and our role is not to dictate but to lend our support," Lanthier says.

The completion of the security site marks the first step towards establishing a rehabilitation or release area.

Lambrechts highlights the challenging journey ahead, envisioning a future where Bongos find sanctuary in Ragati Forest.

Forest security is crucial for protecting these endangered species, with joint patrols aiming to combat illegal activities like logging and poaching, ensuring a safer environment for the Bongos to thrive.

"Talks are ongoing with organisations housing surplus Bongos, with a focus on ensuring a sustainable and successful reintroduction process. Government regulations, infrastructure, and security measures are all integral components that must be addressed before any release can occur," says Donna.

In the future, there are plans to reintroduce the Bongos to the forest. As a first step, repatriated Bongos from several zoos will be considered.

These originally human-habituated Mountain Bongos will have to go through a series of adaptations to the local conditions of Kenya, representing the greatest hope for the Mountain Bongo's population recovery.

"Ensuring the health and safety of the Bongos is paramount, necessitating meticulous planning and execution," Lambrechts says.

"Disease, particularly tick-borne illnesses, poses a significant threat. Gradual exposure to local diseases is essential for their long-term survival," he adds

"Additionally, community engagement is critical. We have spent years fostering relationships with local communities, ensuring they understand the importance of Mountain Bongo conservation and feel invested in the project's success," says Lambrechts.

According to the Mountain Bongo Recovery and Action Plan 2019-2023, the government aims to secure minimum population sizes for Mountain Bongos within their ranges in Kenya, with a target of achieving a national population of 750 individuals over the next 50 years.

This includes specific targets for different regions, such as Mt. Kenya with 250 Bongos, Aberdare with 300, Mau with 100, Eburu with 20, Mt Elgon with 20, Londiani with 20, Chepalungu with 20, and Cherangani with 20.

The launch of the Mountain Bongo security site at Ragati Forest in Mt Kenya Forest ecosystem. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

In addition to population goals, efforts are underway to educate communities about the importance of conservation.

Peter Munene, Conservation Education Officer, has been instrumental in creating awareness in the community and conducting education in schools neighboring the Mt Kenya Forest ecosystem.

"Collaboration is integral to our work. We partner with the Ministry of Education, operating closely with various administrative levels to ensure the success of our conservation education initiatives."

"Together, we've developed a comprehensive conservation curriculum tailored for schools within a five to eight-kilometer radius from forest borders or buffer zones," says Munene.

Training plays a crucial role in sustaining conservation efforts, especially for endangered species often hunted for their meat and horns.

Munene explains that they empower passionate teachers as frontier leaders to ensure continuous curriculum delivery, even in their absence.

Additionally, they have established a network of community conservation champions, volunteers trained across various modules to bridge communication gaps between communities, schools, and forests.

"Engaging local communities, we've established Bongo Wildlife Clubs in schools near forest patches to raise awareness and garner support for conservation. Furthermore, we've implemented community projects such as biogas and solar lighting initiatives to address environmental and socio-economic needs, significantly reducing threats like forest destruction and poaching," adds Munene.

Lambrechts emphasizes that while the journey ahead may seem daunting, the stakes are too high to falter.

"The survival of the Mountain Bongo hinges on our collective action. Through perseverance, collaboration, and community engagement, we are committed to securing a future where the majestic Bongos once again roam freely in their natural habitat," he says.