Saving Kenya’s Bongos at the Mount Kenya Game Ranch

Awareness of the current plight of rhinos and elephants is thankfully gaining global traction. However, these charismatic creatures are by no means the only mammals in serious decline. I visited the Mount Kenya Game Ranch (MKGR), adjacent to the famous Mount Kenya Safari Club, to find out about another one.

The Eastern (Mountain) bongo is one of the world’s most striking antelopes, but also one of the rarest. Its cinnamon coat, robust horns and vivid white stripes and facial markings, make for a remarkable package. Tragically, there are thought to be only 100 or so left in the wild, and they are all here in Kenya! As a result of deforestation and poaching this population is now fragmented across pockets of remaining suitable habitat: the Aberdares, Mt. Kenya, Ol Doinyo Eburru, and Mau forests. This leads to genetic bottlenecks; with some of these herds as low as 15. So local extinction is perilously close.

Fearing the worst, in the 1970s, the founders of the MKGR collaborated with the then Kenya Game Department to capture some to establish a breeding programme. 20 animals were sent to zoos in the USA where numbers eventually surpassed 300 in the ‘90s. The ambitious plan to repopulate Kenya’s forests got under way and 18 were repatriated in 2004. They settled in the MKGR, where the intention was to breed them up and eventually release small groups.

The project initially suffered setbacks, most of all a deadly spate of tick-borne illnesses. However, reintroduction plans seemed back on track by 2012.

In recent years, the MKGR’s ownership changed and with it came a reviewed and renewed policy. I met up with the Wildlife Manager, Donald Bunge, who explained that there were concerns that the poaching threat was too high to introduce groups to areas that are not guaranteed security. Other concerns included the lack of knowledge about how inbred the populations are. Instead, the current focus is to continue ‘outbreeding’ the Ranch’s population of 61 individuals to over 100 breeding adults.

Using sophisticated computer software that profiles each bongo, a matrix is created to determine the ideal, most genetically diverse, mating partnership. Each adult bull is separated into their own enclosure of a couple acres while females live in nursery herds. Females in oestrus are then introduced to the most suitable bull. The strategy is radical, but well researched and in line with the US Species Survival Plan.

The next step is to secure a larger patch of indigenous habitat to allow the bongos more room to search for their natural browse and interact less with humans. Such an area lies nearby, just up the slopes from the Safari Club. The project is awaiting KWS and KFS approval.

The bongo plays a crucial role as an indicator species to forest health. Kenya’s indigenous forests are vital water towers, carbon sinks, wildlife refuges, and are often culturally significant. A strong wild population of bongo will imply a healthy forest. With better forest protection through initiatives such as the Rhino Ark’s fences, eventually the KWS can receive animals from the Ranch when their herds are sustainably large.

Spreading an environmental message is integral to the MKGR’s history. The late Hollywood star, William Holden, fell in love with Kenya and helped create the ranch. After his death in 1981, a foundation and an education facility were set up in his name; the latter has been visited by over half a million children.

One of the biggest attractions for kids is the animal orphanage. It provides a safe home for animals that can no longer survive in the wild. However, the orphanage prides itself on its rehabilitation record, with over 1500 animals released.

Having worked in various wilderness areas, seeing any animal in a captive environment is difficult. Some will never accept it. However, it cannot be denied that these places play an educational role, but the welfare of their animals is paramount. The management of the MKGR’s animal orphanage tells me that they have sought international advice and are currently setting high standards. The centre is certainly beautifully maintained, and most enclosures are large. However, there is more to be done and a few animals are due to get improved homes. This includes the famous Pygmy hippos. Yes, they are not indigenous; they descend from the pair that was gifted to Mzee Kenyatta by Liberian President Tubman in 1968.

Other attractions include cheetahs, Patas monkeys – and the bongos. There are unique creatures such as amelanistic Zebras and a ‘Zebroid’ – half horse, half Grevy’s Zebra. The white zebras, with faint golden stripes, have been bred from a population that, historically, occurred on the Lerogi plateau.

The orphanage is open to the public and entry costs Ksh.1,500. This helps supplement donations to support the centre as well as the flagship bongo project. If you are in the Nanyuki area, it is well worth visiting.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation