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Safe haven for endangered Mountain Bongo

Tuesday, April 5th, 2022 11:59 | By
Humphrey Kariuki, patron aJanus Continental Group and Tourism and Wildlife CS Najib Balala during the official opening of the Mawingu Mountain Bongo Sanctuary. PD/courtesy

Kenya has opened a Mountain Bongo Sanctuary in its bid to help save the animal from extinction. The Mountain Bongo (Tragelaphus eurycerus isaaci) is one of Kenya’s most important iconic animals. It is a critically endangered subspecies and can only be found here in Kenya.

Dubbed the Mawingu Mountain Bongo Sanctuary, the 776-acre sanctuary is located in Nanyuki and is the first-ever Mountain Bongo sanctuary in Africa and the world, marking a historic milestone in the fight for the animal’s survival, with less than 100 individuals left in the wild.

Speaking during the official opening of the sanctuary, Cabinet Secretary for Tourism and Wildlife Najib Balala said that already five mountain bongos have been released into the sanctuary. According to him, every subsequent year, an additional 10 animals will be translocated into the sanctuary in groups of five every six months. Individual mountain bongos to join the sanctuary will be selected offspring from the breeding herds and allowed to roam and mate randomly in the sanctuary.

 “In July 2019, as a country, we launched the National Mountain Bongo Recovery and Action Plan 2019– 2023, in partnership with the Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy (MKWC), Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) and Kenya Forest Services (KFS). The opening of the Mawingu Sanctuary is another critical step forward to help achieve these aims,” said Balala.

The critically endangered mountain bongo is one of the largest forest antelopes and is endemic to the equatorial forests of Kenya (Mount Kenya Forest, Eburu, Mau and Aberdares). This subspecies once roamed in large numbers but has suffered unprecedented population decline since the 1950s due to poaching, live trade, predation, and disease, particularly the rinderpest outbreak in the 1980s.

Reverse extinction

However, it has not yet received the same level of international attention as the ‘Big five’ safari animals, which in part contributed to the recovery of their numbers. According to the recent National Wildlife Census in Kenya, less than 100 mountain bongos are left in the wild and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) predicts that this number will likely continue to decline unless deliberate actions to address the threats are put in place.

Dr Robert Aruho, Head of Veterinary Services at Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy (MKWC) said the dwindling numbers of this animal is what motivated MKWC to take the daunting challenge of reversing this inevitable extinction of the Mountain Bongo in 2004 and started the breeding and rewilding programme of the antelope in Kenya. The team in partnership with KWS and KFS, have been leading a breeding and rewilding programme that has taken nearly 20 years to bring the Mountain Bongo back into the wild.

The programme aims to have individuals that are fully rewilded and, therefore, competent to survive in the sanctuary and eventually the wild. According to Aruho, breeding and rewilding of the animals will continue to be done concurrently, thus creating a stream of candidates to support the reinforcement of wild mountain bongo populations and reintroduction into the historical ranges.

“MKWC firmly believes that with the collective action of all partners mountain bongo numbers will rise and eventually be removed from the IUCN’s critically endangered list,” said Arturo.

“Locally, approval has been granted to us to import healthy mountain bongos from suitable sources in Europe and American zoos. This will ensure the breeding and rewilding programme continues to be successful with genetic diversity,” he added.

Community support

Balala said the long-term vision of the Government of Kenya’s recovery and action plan is to achieve a population of 750 individuals in Kenya by the year 2050. It is also estimated that with the sanctuary now operational, by 2025 it will have 50-70 fully rewilded mountain bongos. The reason is that all partners will now have facilities to complete mountain bongo reintroduction end-to-end.

However, Aruho says that the long-term success of the programme depends on the communities’ support in surrounding areas because most of the threats that caused these subspecies to decline were primarily human-driven. To ensure that this is a success, he reveals that MKWC has set up community conservation, education, and empowerment programmes to create awareness to address these threats.

Apart from that, local communities are also provided with the opportunity for hands-on training on ecosystem restoration. The Conservancy works with the communities to restore degraded areas within Mount Kenya forest through its forest restoration and reforestation programme. Under this partnership, MKWC has involved 3,000 community members in planting over 35,000 indigenous tree species in Mount Kenya Forest. In 2022, MKWC is planning to plant another 5,000 trees with the support of the communities.

 “Total weaning of these animals from human dependence is a gradual process requiring technical skill, patience, and commitment to allow the animals to adapt independently,” he adds in conclusion.