Saving rare antelopes from risk of extinction

Mountain bongos are only found in Kenya, in their natural habitat in Aberdare, Mt Kenya and Eburu forests.

Securing their habitat and deploying surveillance technologies are among the efforts being employed to save rare antelopes in Eburu Forest.

There are about ten of these critically engendered antelopes, known as Mountain Bongos, at Eburu Forest, which has put it on the global map as a critical original range for the animals. And efforts to save the rare antelope have started to bear fruit, according to officials. These efforts, by the public and private sector, include making the forest a sanctuary for the bongos.

Mountain bongos are only found in Kenya, in their natural habitat in Aberdare, Mt Kenya and Eburu forests.

They are among the largest forest antelopes, with a reddish-brown coat, with black, white and yellow-white markings. Both males and females have long, slightly spiralled horns. Bongos are rarely seen in large herds.

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The International Union of Conservation and Nature (IUCN) says Mountain Bongos are critically endangered. In 2017, their population was falling fast with the number of mature animals estimated between 70 and 80. They are listed by IUCN among animal species facing extinction.

Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) Central Rift assistant director Aggrey Maumo said Eburu Forest has been identified as one of the key original habitats of Mountain Bongos.

Spearhead formation

“Eburu Forest hosts around ten Mountain Bongos and forms part of the larger Mau Complex that is home to other bongos. To conserve the sub-species, a committee was formed to spearhead formation of a sanctuary for the animals. Surveillance and monitoring are a key part of the team’s efforts,” Maumo said.

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Members of the committee formed in August are drawn from local communities, KWS, Kenya Forest Service (KFS) and Rhino Ark, a charitable conservation organisation.  

The decision to make Eburu a sanctuary for Mountain Bongos follows a visit, in 2016, by a team from IUCN, which termed the forest as ‘extremely good’ habitat for population of the shy antelopes.

Biggest threats

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IUCN identifies hunting and loss of habitat in the Mau and Eburu forests, due to illegal logging, as some of the biggest threats to the antelopes.

Influx of livestock into the forest, according to Mr Maumo, is also threatening the bongos as they spread rinderpest disease said to be a major threat to the animals.

“We are however working on controlling movement of cattle in the forest as part of efforts to conserve the Mountain Bongos,” he said. Eburu Forest KFS deputy forester Benjamin Obala said fencing has reduced cases of hunting, charcoal burning and logging in the 8,715-hectare woodland.

“There was a time charcoal burning, logging and hunting in Eburu was so intense. These activities degraded the forest thereby threatening the bongos. Through partnerships with organisations, including M-Pesa Foundation, Finlays, Rhino Ark and government agencies, surveillance has greatly improved. We have also constructed a 43km fence around the forest,” Obala said.

He said they have also replanted trees covering over 10 hectares of the forest. “Over 40 per cent of the forest had been degraded before we fenced and started replanting trees to supplement natural regeneration.”

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Obala added: “Efforts to save of the bongos, especially due to intensified conservation of their natural habitat, are paying off.”

Rhino Ark’s coordinator and resource development manager for Mau, Erick Kihiu, said use of technology to enhance surveillance has been central to their efforts.

“The electric fence has reduced cases of human-wildlife conflicts while helping secure the Mountain Bongos. We are still working to secure degraded areas of the forest which are key in dispersal and breeding. A wildlife corridor has been created to allow animals access Lake Naivasha for water,” Mr Kihiu said.

He added: “We also have a new advanced monitoring technology being pioneered in Eburu to boost the electric fence. The technology enables a ranger to easily monitor the fence and pick out faults. The fence has sensors that also relays messages, through SMS, in case of a fault on the fence.”

The technology, he said, is part of efforts to deal with illegal hunting of the sub-species that live deep inside the forest because of their shy nature.

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Cameras have also been installed in the forest to help monitor the animals. This will also help establish the exact number of bongos.

Previously, Mountain Bongos also lived in Cherengani Hills, Chepalungu Hills and Mt Elgon.

Initiative started

Apart from hunting and diseases, loss of habitat has also been a major challenge to the survival of Mountain Bongos. 

Efforts to conserve Mountain Bongos have been ongoing. In 2004, 18 animals were flown from North American zoos to a captive-breeding facility at Mount Kenya Game Ranch.

A Bongo Surveillance Programme was initiated in 2004 to investigate the status of the remaining bongos in Kenya.

In 2015, the programme showed Kenya only had 100 Mountain Bongos, well below the Critically Endangered threshold of 250 animals.

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Kenya Wildlife ServiceMountain bongosAberdareEburu forest