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Safe haven for mountain bongos

By | August 5th 2010

By Ferdinand Mwongela

Mount Kenya towers in the background behind the green foliage and the white painted walls of the Fairmont Mt Kenya Safari Club.

The mountain was once the home of mountain bongo, an endangered sub-species of antelope, possibly the most endangered large mammal south of the Sahara. But thanks to hunting and predation, the extremely shy and elusive animal is fighting for survival, ironically away from the mountain.

I watched the reddish brown animal grazes quietly well away from the path, beside her a smaller version of herself. Its reddish brown coat is striking, with white vertical stripes running down her side almost like man made markings. From afar it looks like a huge goat with its head held gracefully away like a deposed monarch. The presence of people milling by does not seem to bother it. In fact it continues to graze with an arrogance of the mountain gods.

Endangered species

This is the mountain bongo, also known as the Eastern bongo. The place is the Mt Kenya Animal Orphanage. The animals have been listed as one of the endangered species and the Mt Kenya restoration project has been recognised as one of the most successful in the world by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

On this day, we are touring the small sanctuary on the slopes of Mt Kenya, right next to the Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club into which we had checked earlier.

The last of the mountain bongo at the conservancy. [PHOTO: EVANS HABIL/STANDARD]

The conservancy is one of the main attractions in these parts with visitors paying Sh1,000 for entry, money that Mt Kenya Orphanage’s Donald Bunge tells us goes towards the upkeep of the animals.

The conservancy prides itself on its bongo conservation efforts with the animal touted as its biggest attraction next the llama, native to South America and which scientists are now saying will be the next big thing in animal farming.

True to its claim, and just like the hotel next door, the orphanage is an interesting place to visit and one full of history. One easily notices the old ox wagon with a plaque announcing named ‘Bongo’ it once belonged to Colonel Eric Sydney Percey Smith, one of the earliest settlers on this land, together with his lady friend Mrs Myra Wheeler. The couple arrived from South Africa in 1935 on this very wagon and were among the first people to sight the elusive animal.

They used a pit trap, the same method that was later used by former film star William Holden when he established Africa’s only captive breeding herd of the bongo. Smith’s act made him famous winning him the name of ‘Bongo’ Smith.

William Holden, on the other hand, went on to start the Mt Kenya Safari Club as one of the founders. Later came the William Holden Wildlife Foundation that has come to play an important role in the saving of the bongo. Decades later, efforts to keep the mountain bongo from extinction are still going on.

The conservation efforts started over four decades ago when Don Hunt and the late William Holden captured 20 mountain bongos as the species spiralled towards extinction.

The animals were then sent to the United States as part of a breeding programme with the eventual aim of re-establishing the species in the region.

In 2004, the first herd arrived from the US. The Mount Kenya Animal Orphanage, run by the Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy, has a resident bongo herd that has formed a learning point for a lot of conservationists and eager students.

The bongos have grown accustomed to people, but even though the mother with her calf shows no aggressive tendencies caution is nevertheless advised.

More to offer

Though the bongos are the main attraction here, the orphanage has more to offer. One of the first animals I see here are the patas monkey, also known red hussar or military monkey also now rare in Kenya unlike the vervet and colobus monkeys.

The orphanage says most of its rare species are bred with the aim of releasing them back into the wild and hopefully re-establishing them back in their natural habitat. It is obvious that the animals’ stay here has given them measured arrogance as can be seen with one patas monkey. It remained seated on a tree stump staring at us despite our attempts to shoo it away.

A little further, an ostrich and a baby buffalo also strut around unstrained. The animals here are many, though it is not as big as the Nairobi Animal Orphanage.

My next best attraction will have to be the herd of llama, the animal native to South America but which scientists are now pushing to be adopted by farmers in the country with pockets of success stories.

One of the llamas, a white animal, takes a liking for me and we soon become friends. How else would you describe the licking of my palms?

As we leave the orphanage and head back to the Safari Club where a feast awaited, I could not help but marvel at the dogged determination of conservationists.

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