Bongo Antelope to be Released in Mount Kenya Forest

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Four years after their repatriation from the US, a herd of bongo antelopes will be released into the wild in Mount Kenya forest.

Wildlife experts from the Mount Kenya Wildlife Sanctuary are working closely with the Kenya Wildlife Service to reurn six of the elusive bongos to their original home in a conservation effort with few parallels in the world.

Once in the wild, the animals will most likely miss the improved diet they are now fed on. They are also likely to miss the intense nurturing carried out by the dedicated employees of the conservancy who spoil the beautiful beasts by feeding them on mineral pellets and fodder that is fetched from the bush and delivered right to their feet.

According to Donald Bunge, the sanctuary wildlife manager, this system of feeding has greatly improved not just the animals' survival chances but also their fertility. Interestingly, however, some the bongos find it hard to calve on their own and have to be "midwifed" by Bunge's assistants.

In the wild, the bongos are also likely to encounter some most formidable enemies, including leopards and hyenas.

An adult bongo weighs up to 350kg.

"Our greatest fear, however, is not the wild animals but poachers who hunt using dogs," says Bunge. He said such hunting was largely behind the total disappearance of bongos around the mountain forest.

Most of the bongos were previously residents of zoos in the US where they were used to friendly pats and other gestures from human beings.

However, Bunge and fellow handlers have introduced specialised training for the six bongos selected to pioneer life in the jungle.

"All of them are males selected them from a bachelors' herd who are strong enough to fight off much of the danger out there," he said.

The six males are currently living in isolation in a thick riverine forest along the Nanyuki River, within the precincts of the 1,216-acre ranch.

Here, conditions mimic what the animals are likely to find higher up in the mountain forest - abundance of forage, huge trees and dense undergrowth. The entire riverine forest is now enclosed with a perimeter electric fence to keep poachers at bay, visitors are not allowed.

"Besides keeping them here, we have also taught them to be afraid of men and dogs by being unpleasant to them," says Don Hunt, chairman of the conservancy.

"This," he says, "has involved setting up scarecrows and scaring the animals away each time they come into contact with members of the team. We give each of the animals this treatment immediately they are past their weaning period."

Such training is meant to help them rediscover not just their lost instincts but also their legendary elusive nature.

And it seems to be paying off for, when we visited the enclosed forest, we did not see any of the bongos despite the fact that Bunge had earlier located their whereabouts using the transmitters attached to their horns.

The sanctuary uses GPS satellite technology to continuously locate and monitor their movements.

The system comes complete with satellite photos and maps that accurately pinpoint where the animals are as they feed, drink and rest.

"By using the technology, we get an early warning if any of the animals has fallen sick or died, if it stationery for too long," says Hunt.

The reintroduction of the mountain antelope into the Mt Kenya ecosystem was first mooted in the mid-1990s when a US-based rare species specialist, Paul Reillo, came up with the idea of repatriating a herd of them to their original home in Kenya.

THIS WAS AFTER IT WAS realised that a long-running experiment involving the erstwhile Kenya Game Department (the body that preceded the Kenya Wildlife Service) and the US government, to save the animals from extinction had largely succeeded.

Between 1970 and 1980, the Mount Kenya Game Ranch (in which the current sanctuary is located) had captured 20 bongos that were shipped to the US for "safekeeping" and captive breeding. The antelopes left behind in the Mt Kenya area were subsequently all killed by poachers.

The animals taken to the US had progressively built a population running into the hundreds by the time Reillo came up with the concept.

Kenyan wildlife enthusiasts, led by Hunt, together with their US counterparts, came up with the scheme when repatriating the antelope to its true home, owners of zoos in the US and the United Nations Development Programme arranged for an airlift. The first herd arrived in Kenya in 2004.

To prevent the antelopes being killed for bushmeat, people living around the mountain need to be educated on the need to conserve wildlife.

One such initiative is already ongoing under the William Holden Wildlife Foundation, which co-finances and runs a wildlife and environment education programme for thousands of schoolchildren and interested people living around the mountain.

The foundation is located within the privately-owned Mount Kenya Game Ranch. The UNDP-Compact initiative, which finances the rehabilitation of the ecosystem through community environment projects, is set to bankroll the education project.

KWS, too, has been urging residents living around the area where the six bongos will make their new home, to give the beautiful beasts a chance.

The American Association of Zoological Parks recently named the Bongo Rehabilitation Project the world's third most successful wildlife conservation project.

Hunt, who has been involved in the bongo conservation project for the past 35 years, is optimistic that the combined efforts of KWS, the Conservancy and the goodwill of the local people will save the animals from poachers once they are released into the wild.