Monday, February 7, 2011

Town & Country Philippine Edition - Article "Up Close and Personal with the Bongo" by Cecilia Brainard

Up Close and Personal with the Bongo
published in Town & Country, Philippine Edition, January 2011;

On a safari in Kenya, a party of tourists is treated to the beautiful – and rare – sight of an endangered species of antelope.

By Cecilia Manguerra Brainard

“Sometimes species do spring up in areas where they are least expected. I sighted and photographed a caracal in the Aberdare many years ago and this stunned many conservation biologists as caracals are savanna-dwelling species, yet the Aberdare is a montane forest.” —Dr. Charles Musyoki, senior research scientist of Kenya Wildlife Service.

It was winter in Kenya and there was enough chill that morning in Amboseli to make me and Lauren, my husband, throw on our light jackets. We opened the doors of our patio, hoping to see Mount Kilimanjaro. All we saw was the outline of the great mountain in a hazy shroud with two faint streaks of white ice at its peak. We made our way to the dining hall where we met up with our traveling companions, our old friends John and Elizabeth Allen.

That morning in July, we happily reviewed what we had seen in Kenya so far. In Nairobi we visited the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage, the Giraffe Manor and the Karen Blixen Museum. In Amboseli we saw wildlife writer and conservationist Cynthia Moss in a van following a family of thirty elephants. We witnessed two hyenas shrieking from across the road and rushing toward each other to do their elaborate greeting. One evening we saw a hippo rise out of the lake and get up on land to feed – it still had clumps of wet leaves clinging to his head and body. We had other lucky sightings -- of giraffes, gazelles, waterbucks, birds of all kinds, all unusual and exciting for us who had seen these animals only in zoos. We didn’t know it then, but no game drive sighting would surpass the one we would witness later that same morning.

Our driver guide, Ben Juma, did his best to avoid the enormous potholes on the dirt road as we headed to the Aberdares. Ben had worked for fifteen years as a driver and guide and was professional, personable and very knowledgeable about all animals.

We were a kilometer away from the main road when Ben suddenly stepped on the brakes. It was around 9:30 A.M. Some forty feet ahead of us, something stirred on our right. Ben, who had excellent eyesight, could spot animals before any of us could. He said, “There are antelopes.”

We were in a Nissan van with a pop-up top. We watched one antelope walk in front of us, followed by three more. Everything happened quickly. They crossed the road from our right to the left, disappearing into the brush. Ben usually identified and gave information about the animals, but this time he said, “It’s a-a-a…” Quickly, even while the antelopes were still making their way through the brush, he reached for his field guide and flipped the pages.
I watched the animals in the brush. One of them looked back at us, while the rest of the herd went deeper into the brush. Like his companions, this antelope was huge and sported an attractive, bright red-brown coat. I saw his head, somewhat thick neck and horns that curved over his head in the shape of a lyre. He stared for what seemed like a long time, his head appearing ghostly in the midst of the brush. I wanted to take a picture but all of us had put away our cameras, thinking we were done with game drives for the time being.

Meanwhile, Ben held up his field guide which was opened to a page with pictures of antelopes. “Which one?” One of them had the same reddish-brown coat and shape I had just glimpsed, and simultaneously John pointed at the same animal, saying, “That one, with the stripes!” Ben nodded. “Bongo,” he said, then added, “No one will ever believe me.”

Ben told us the bongo was a rare animal, but we were nonchalant; we thought the sighting was just another lucky break. We didn’t know anything about the bongo.

Ben and John discussed the stripes they had seen on the sides of the animals; all of us talked about their vivid red-brown coats, their horns and enormous size. Their movements were cautious but not skittish. We rechecked the field guide book; only the mountain bongo matched what we had seen.

We arrived at the Aberdares National Park in the afternoon, hoping to see many animals at The Ark game lodge. We had to go to the Aberdare Country Club, and from there take a forty-minute bus ride to lush mountain terrain. The driver talked about the animals in the Aberdares. When he mentioned the bongo, we quickly said, “We saw bongos this morning.”

“In Amboseli?” He had an amused smile.
“Oh, yes,” we said, and proceeded to tell our story.
“Did your driver see this?” he asked.
“Oh yes,” we replied. His smile vanished.

At the lodge the director immediately asked us about the bongo sighting. He spent a good deal of time educating us about the critically endangered animal—meaning, there are more of the species in captivity than in the wild. The bongo can be found in the wild in only four places: Mount Kenya National Park, Mau Forest, Eburru Forest and the Aberdare National Park. There are only 500 bongos left in the world and most of them in zoos. In Kenya only 103 are in the wild and sixty-eight are in semi-captive facilities. The Aberdare Salient had electrified fences all around to keep poachers and loggers out. In April 2000, to protect the bongo population, two hundred lions were removed from the Aberdares Conservation Area.

The lodge director did not say so, but what he inferred was that it was simply unbelievable that our group had seen four bongos in Amboseli. Still, even though he could discount what the four of us tourists said, he couldn’t fully disregard what our driver and guide had to say.

After an uneventful night at The Ark, we returned to the Aberdare National Park. The director and another man also made their way there to interview Ben about the bongo sighting. They talked for a long time. They knew Ben knew his antelopes and there was no way he would have mistaken some other antelope for a bongo.

During our drive to Samburu, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) called several times. They asked Ben and us about the bongo sighting. They wanted pictures or video of the bongo, which we did not have. They said they would send scientists to comb the area where we had seen the animals.

Call it serendipity, but on the same day the KWS called, the National Bongo Task Force met in Nyeri, Kenya, to discuss, among other things, the genetic testing on the bongos in semi-captivity as a prelude to their release to the wild. In the 1960s Wildlife Conservationists partnered with the Kenya Wildlife Department and American scientists to develop a plan to capture a small group of bongos and send them to American zoos to ensure their survival should they become extinct in Kenya. Between 1966 and 1975, thirty-six bongos were captured in the Aberdares and sent to U.S. zoos. The bongo did well in captivity, and by the end of 2001, 323 individuals were in the captive group.

KWS senior research scientist Dr. Charles Musyoki told us that in 2004, a breeding group of eighteen bongos were repatriated to the Mount Kenya Game Ranch. Eleven of them died. Ten from the original U.S. herd managed to breed. The current bongo captive population stands at sixty-eight (in Mount Kenya Game Ranch and Nanyuki).

While the plan is to reintroduce the offspring of the repatriated bongos to the wild, none of the captive bongos have yet been released into the wild. Last July, the task force members agreed that genetic issues need to be addressed by further analysis of wild and captive bongos. It was decided that some bongos would be released to fenced sanctuaries to prevent mixing with wild stock.

After our fourteen-day safari, I contacted Dr. Musyoki to ask what had been done in response to our sighting. He said their scientists were still surveying the area. He explained that poaching, habitat loss, disease and genetic factors had been contributing to the shrinking of the bongo population since the early 1900s. I was sad to learn that these elegant, non-aggressive animals were being killed for their horns and pelt.

The bongo has been selected as the flagship species for one of the world’s richest forest ecosystems. Its diminishing population reflects the destruction of the forest ecosystem. With the focus on the conservation of the bongo, it is hoped that other species that share its habitat or are vulnerable to the same threats may also be improved.

The last place we visited in Kenya was the Nairobi National Museum which is famous for its collection of five- to –ten-million-year-old hominid skulls. While my companions studied these artifacts, I went to another room which displayed mounted heads of a hartebeest, greater kudu and bongo. My eyes zeroed in on the bongo; this one looked like the head of the Amboseli bongo that had stared out at me from the brush—the same snout, markings, horns and ears sticking out just so. The Amboseli bongo had a brighter coat and the horns may have been shorter, but it was the same animal.

The sight of that mounted head brought me back to the moment when I saw that first bongo step out on the dirt road, followed by three more -- huge, horned, elegant animals with startling red-brown coats. One stood guard and stared at us, while the three vanished into the brush, and finally the fourth one turned and disappeared as well.

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