Rare Species Conservatory Foundation

Dr. Paul Reillo with bongo calfEast Afrcian Mountain Bongo Antleope (Boocerus eurycerus isaaci)

The mountain (or eastern) bongo is a flagship species for one of the world's richest forest ecosystems, adjacent to the highest priority plant-diversity hotspot, the Eastern Arc Mountains of Kenya. This shy bovid is a visually striking, with a deep fawn colored coat bisected with white vertical stripes. Equally impressive are the bongos horns, which can reach over three feet in length, characterized by a single, flowing twist. Males can reach up to 900 lbs., females weigh in slightly smaller, averaging 750 lbs.

Range: The mountain bongo is a subspecies of the nominate race, B. e. eurycerus, and is highly endangered, restricted at most to three small, Kenyan sub-populations: Aberdares Conservation Area, the Mau Forest, and Mt. Kenya National Park.

Habitat: Bongo prefer montane and lowland forests.

Diet: Bongo are browsers, feeding on a variety of plant materials. Their tongue is prehensile, and can be used to pull up roots, leaves and grasses. Bongo are also known to eat the bark of fallen trees.

Social Organization: Bongo are active during the day, and travel in small family groups of up to eight individuals. These groups are patriarchal, dominated by a lead bull. The bulls cultivate several females for their "harem" and will not tolerate interference from unknown bulls. Aging bulls eventually leave the group, spending the rest of their days alone, or in small "bachelor groups". Females give birth to a single calf after a nine-month gestation period. Calfs are tended to by the mother, but interact freely with the rest of the group.

Conservation Status: The mountain bongo is listed as CITES Appendix I and is considered critically endangered. While population estimates are inferential, altogether less than a hundred mountain bongo are believed to survive in the wild. While wild stocks have plummeted in the past fifty years-primarily due to unrestricted hunting, poaching, and lion predation--the captive population has flourished. Between 1966 and 1975, wild mountain bongos were imported to U.S. zoological institutions from the Aberdares, with a total of 36 animals founding the North American captive bongo population. As of 31 December 2001, this population totaled 323 individuals (130 males, 190 females, 3 unknowns at 66 institutions) representing the most robust captive group anywhere. In contrast, the total captive population in Africa stands at 21 (8 males, 13 females) distributed among four institutions. Despite the small number of founders in zoological collections--all of which originated from Aberdares stock--survivorship and fecundity remain high even after 20+ years of captive breeding. Today bongo husbandry is well established worldwide, and the global captive population has exhibited an average growth rate of 6.7% per annum over the past five years.

Threats to Survival: The eastern mountain bongo has never been plentiful. Historically, hunting, poaching, and lion predation decimated the wild population. Currently, remaining wild animals are fully protected by the Kenya Wildlife Service, and a management plan for both captive and wild bongo is currently underway.

Conservation: Luckily, the bongo antelope has been the subject of intense conservation efforts. In January 2004 RSCF, working with several national and international partners, returned a breeding group of 18 bongo to the Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy. These animals will form a core breeding group, producing offspring that will eventually be released into the adjacent Mount Kenya National Park. The wild population suffers a mixed fate. Mountain bongos were common in the Aberdares as late as the 1950's, and this region likely represents the subspecies' stronghold today. Recent local and international legal efforts have temporarily thwarted the Kenya government's attempts to de-gazette the Mau Forest for logging, but increasing agricultural and economic pressures make for an uncertain future there. Formal protection for bongo across Mt. Kenya, Aberdares, and Mau has proven difficult to enforce, as illegal hunting with dogs has exacerbated the population decline largely attributed to increased lion predation since the mid-1980's. It has been reported that the mountain bongo was extremely rare on Mt. Kenya as of 1998, but likely the last mountain bongo died on Mt. Kenya during 1994-95. In a recent effort to protect the dwindling Aberdares population, the Park Service culled 200 lions from the Aberdares Conservation Area in April 2000.

Education: The educational campaign surrounding the fate of the mountain bongo is already in place. Captive bongo around the world are used to educate the public about the species, and the Mt. Kenya Wildlife Conservancy has for several years given local people the only opportunity to see and interact with bongo. This hands-on awareness is vital to ensure that the bongo antelope remains in the forefront of public conciousness--a true national treasure. Public awareness is vital to the future of the species. Zoological institutions must continue to iform the public and encourage and support global participation in conservation and educational programs.

Reintroduction: Originally conceived in 1992 by the directors of the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation (RSCF), the Mountain Bongo Project aims to establish an in situ captive breeding program, in a natural setting, as the first phase of several conservation steps required to reintroduce mountain bongos to the wild. Put simply, this initiative seeks to return a significant wildlife resource to its country of origin, and ultimately yield a self-sustaining wild population. With 18 bongo returned to Kenya so far, this program will eventually return future bongo generations to the wild. This release will be continued in phases, as the captive population continues to grow.

Comments/Conclusions: While the fate of wild bongo remains uncertain, the captive population supplies a reservoir of animals--a hedge against extinction. While research and conservation programs continue to protect and manage wild stock, the captive population plays a key role in the future of the species. Returning ex situ captive animals to the country of origin is crucial, for it returns a country's natural heritage to be managed in situ, where it belongs.

Click here for more information about the Bongo Repatriation Program.