The mountain bongo is one of the most elusive creatures on earth. Critically endangered, until very recently, it was thought to be extinct in the forests of Mount Kenya. And it might just as well have been because sightings of bongos on the mountain have been about as regular as sightings of yetis in the Himalayas.
At the Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy, nerve centre of the ‘Bongo Taskforce’, warden, Donald Bunge, tells the tale of a colleague who studied the bongo for 15 years. In all that time, Donald recounts, the man never saw a single bongo. And as for the 20-man team of professional trackers who spend their entire lives looking for signs of bongos on the mountain, only two very elderly trackers have so much as glimpsed a bongo: and then only fleetingly.
Bongos are shyness incarnate. Rarely seen, rarely tracked, rarely caught on camera, they are believed to live high on the flanks of Kenya’s mystical mountain, deep within its most impenetrable forest groves. But like their habitat, the bongos are shrouded in mist and wreathed in shape-shifting shadows. And over the last century their numbers have shrunk so radically that today they’re as mythical as unicorns.
Strange then, to find one staring at you, mildly curious, over an ice-bucket.
But then it’s a strange situation. The morning sky is cloudless-blue and the jagged peaks of Mount Kenya sparkle with tropical ice. We’re sitting on hay bales. In front of us, meticulously laid out, is a picnic breakfast. To one side stands a waiter, starched napkin over arm, champagne bottle in hand. To the other stands a man with a bucket of pellets. In front of us, their unusually large eyes glued to the bucket, is a herd of bongos.
We’re all waiting for kick-off.
The cork pops, the pellets are shaken on to the grass, and as the bongos make a headlong, if somewhat skittish, rush towards them, we make a start on the fruit. There’s a lot of crunching, snorting and blowing. By the time we’re on to the bacon and eggs, the pellets have disappeared and the herd is looking enquiringly towards the man with the bucket. But he’s under strict orders, as are we. They’re to have no more pellets than have been carefully calibrated to ensure that they remain in peak, sleek condition. And, certainly, no croissants.
These creatures are as rare as fairy dust. It has taken many years, several million dollars and vast swathes of commitment to create a breeding herd of bongos. It’s the only herd in Africa; and the bongo’s last hope of survival.
It’s been a brisk gallop to near-extinction for the bongo (Tragelaphus eurycerus isaaci). Until the early 1900s, bongos thrived on the higher slopes of Kenya’s various mountain ranges. No wedding was complete amid the Kikuyu people without a haunch of bongo for the feast and the gift of a bongo hide wood-carrying strap for the bride. But then came hunting, rinderpest-infection, lion-predation, habitat shrinkage, poaching and the steady destruction of Mount Kenya’s forests. And by 1970 the bongo looked set to follow the dodo into extinction.
But then a minor miracle intervened.
The Mount Kenya Game Ranch, which had retained a small herd of bongos in captivity, decided to send a few carefully chosen animals to the United States of America where it was hoped they might survive. They did, and in 2004 a brave band of 18 ‘American cousin’ bongos was shipped back to the Conservancy under the auspices of a group of globally renowned conservationists. Settled into their specially fenced bongo protection area, the incoming Americans intermingled with the local Kenyans and thereafter the great work of breeding a herd of super bongos, strong enough to return to the wild, was begun.
It was not easy. Desirable traits, such as sleek coats, elegant horns and good body shape were encouraged; crossed horns and pink noses were not. And, even today when the herd numbers 66 individuals, Donald Bunge can still look at any one of his precious charges and reel off a list of its forebears. The goal of the initiative is to expand the herd to 250 individuals, which constitutes a herd with the genetic strength to survive. Thereafter, certain bongos will be placed in a larger sanctuary, presently being located on the wilder forested slopes of the mountain. Eventually, pioneer herds will be sent back, suitably protected, to re-establish themselves in the areas where once they thrived. Donald reckons it will take about 20 years and he is intent on seeing the mission accomplished. Why is he so zealous about the bongo? Donald’s eye rests fondly on the herd, ‘because they’re ours,’ he says. ‘They live only here in Kenya. So we Kenyans must own them and keep them safe’.
Back at the picnic site breakfast is over and the bongos have vanished. One by one, they have stepped delicately back into the dense-dark undergrowth where, thanks to the brilliance of their camouflage, they have instantly disappeared. Peering deep into the dark leafy tunnels, we can just discern a bib of white below a long russet-brown face: then just a black mask around a pair of very bright eyes. Then, in utter silence, the largest forest antelope on earth completely fades away.
But this time… it’s not forever.
The Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy (MKWC) was established in 1967 the Hollywood actor, William Holden, Julian McKeand and Iris and Don Hunt. It began life as the Mount Kenya Game Ranch but subsequently became the Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy. The Conservancy also hosts a herd of rare white zebras, shelters orphaned or wounded animals and provides a wide-reaching educational programme for young Kenyans. The Conservancy lies in the grounds of the world famous Mount Kenya Safari Club, which was also founded as one of the world’s most famous hotels by William Holden and a group of friends in 1959. Once known as ‘millionaires’ row’ due to the superlative excellence of its facilities and the glittering array of famous faces that passed through its doors, today the Fairmont Mount Kenya Safari Club promises uninterrupted views of Mount Kenya, exquisite accommodation, gourmet cuisine and an unprecedented range of activities. For further information www.fairmont.com.
For information on how to support the Nanyuki-based non-profit Kenyan charitable trust of the Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy contact: info@mountkenyawildlifeconservancy or visit www.animalorphanagekenya.org.