After years and years of visiting the Aberdares, my patience was beginning to wear thin.
I had serious doubts about the existence of the elusive bongo in the Aberdares, the mountainous range that looms above the skyline north of Nairobi and stretches 160 kilometers.
Sure, l had seen the copper-red antelope with white stripes running down its flanks and horns that seemed to be capped with ivory tips at the Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy on the slopes of the mountain. But nothing compares to seeing the real thing in its natural habitat – albeit split-second, unannounced, unforgettable sightings.
I’ve seen a dolphin somersaulting in the vast ocean waters; the shadow of the whale-shark appearing below the boat; a turtle surfacing for a gulp of air; a leopard slinking down a tree.
Now, l can finally add a bongo bolting across the road in the high rosewood cedar forests of the Aberdares. And like all unexpected sightings, we weren’t even looking for it. I no longer doubt the antelope’s existence in the wild.
Bongos were a common feature of the dense forests of the five massifs in Kenya — the Aberdares, Mt Kenya, Mt Elgon, the Cheranganis and the Mau.
Framed sepia photographs of a pair of bongos involved in a lethal fight in the 1970s hang on the wooden staircase leading to the rooftop of the famous Treetops hotel in the Aberdares overlooking the salt licks and the waterholes.
The original hotel was a true tree house with a few rooms, where a young woman climbed up the ladder as a princess only to climb down as the Queen Elizabeth in 1952.
However, poaching and logging from the early 1900s took a heavy toll on the bongos; there was real fear that this shy, forest dwelling antelope would become extinct in the wild if no measures were taken to protect it.
Hence a herd of bongo was translocated to American zoos with the intention of reintroducing the offspring into their natural habitat once all security measures were in place and the threat of poaching and logging addressed.
Finally in 2004, a herd of 18 were flown back to the Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy, where an in-situ captive-breeding programme has been in existence for many years.
To enhance security in the Aberdare National Park, the Kenya Wildlife Service and the Rhino Ark Charitable Trust collaborated to raise funds to build an electric fence between 1989 and 1991 to fence the Aberdare Salient to keep the poachers and loggers out.
The fence proved to be a successful deterrent, so it was later extended to include the entire Aberdare National Park and the Conservation Area.
However, the original herd of returnees would have to stay in the safe confines of Mount Kenya Orphanage simply because these urban bongos are not acclimatised to the harsh montane conditions, have no natural immunity against infections nor any wild instincts to tough it out in the wilderness.
Nevertheless, their offsprings will be introduced in the wild when the time is right.
This is important because of the 113 samples tested of the bongo DNA, all show that the bongos descend from two maternal groups, leading to inbreeding that weakens the genetic diversity of the animal, making it susceptible to inherited diseases.
I meet up with Mike Prettejohn, who was born and bred in Kenya and has lived most of his life in the shadow of the Aberdares.
An octogenarian, he still flies his own plane and is fully committed to the plight of the rhino, having established the Bongo Surveillance Project in 2003, made up of a group of dedicated men who live in the thin air of the dense, high altitude forests on the mountain, monitoring the bongos.
The Bongo Surveillance Project won the prestigious Michael Werikhe Award for Conservation awarded by the East African Wild Life Society in 2007.
Despite the accolades, Mike is still a worried man. “There is still poaching going on,” he says.
I had thought that with the electric fence, the surveillance team and the media interest in the bongo, nobody would be killing the threatened antelope.
“The demand for bushmeat is high and the poachers lay their wire snares by the fence line; it doesn’t matter to them which animals gets caught in the trap,” he explains.
The electric fence is not a 100 per cent deterrent as the poachers short-circuit it to gain entry or the occasional big bull barges through it. With limited funds, it’s a tough job trying to keep the fence intact, the rangers equipped and the funding going.
The Kenyan bongo really ought to have a tag around the neck reading “Found only in Kenya,” similar to designer labels fixed on anything from snazzy sunglasses to one of a kind, haute couture.
For the Kenyan bongo, or rather the mountain bongo, Tragelaphus eurycerous isaaci, is only found in Kenya and nowhere else on this earth (save for the zoo species that were taken from the Kenyan wilderness) and hence is endemic and classified as a critically endangered species.
In 1902, F.W Isaacs collected a specimen near Eldama Ravine close to the Mau escarpment.
The specimen was taken to the London Natural History Museum where it was identified.
Besides the mountain bongo, there is the lowland bongo, T.e. eurycerous, which is more common, being found in the forests of West and Central Africa stretching from Sierra Lone through Democratic Republic of Congo to Southern Sudan.
It was first recorded in 1836 by a French hunter-explorer, Paul B du Chaillu, from a skull lodged in a forest tree in West Africa.
The mountain bongo is the heaviest and largest of the forest antelopes with a full-grown male weighing 405 kilogrammes (compared with my 51kg!)
Despite its heavy stature, it lives in dense forests in the high mountains where just streaks of sunlight can penetrate.
Monitoring them through the ravaged, steep slopes of the ravines in extreme mountainous weather is an enduring feat of strength and perseverance by the men of the Bongo Surveillance Project. So tough is the terrain that supplies are dropped by helicopter to the men on the ground.
Under such extreme conditions, it was anyone’s guess to how many bongos survived in the mountains.
In 1975, the then Kenya Game Department estimated a population of 500. The last record from the Ark in the Aberdare Salient is in 1988.
Sightings became so rare in the 1990s, with the lion population at its height, that there was concern that not only would the mountain bongo become extinct but also the giant forest hog.
The lions, introduced from Laikipia and therefore not a natural Aberdare population, were exterminated to reduce the pressure on the increasingly rare herbivores.
With modern equipment such as camera traps and GPS, together with a dedicated field staff and volunteers, Mike Prettejohn published an article in the East African Wild Life Society magazine Swara giving the current status of the mountain bongo.
A population of no more than 100 remains in the Aberdares, of which only about 60 have been DNA tested.
The Bongo Surveillance Project has expanded its range to include the other massifs such as Mount Kenya where a population of 10 to 12 bongos was recorded in 2005 after a 10-year no-sighting period.
In the Mau, with the help of the local Ogiek hunter-gatherers, there’s evidence from spoors and droppings that there may be a few of the bongo still around.
In Eburru, in November 2004, a group of illegal loggers snared a bongo and then ate it, throwing the horns in the kiln.
A breakthrough came in 2006 when a forest guide, Solomon Kiriu, with a camera from another bongo supporter, Nigel Carnelley, photographed the bongo on Eburru. On the Cheranganis, which has over the past 30 years been deforested and is heavily populated, there seems little hope of the forest antelope’s survival.
Colin Church of the Rhino Ark Charitable Trust grew up in a place called Kigare 10km north of Embu and not too far from the Mt Kenya forest boundary. The bongo common in those days in the higher zones of the forests was called Ndongoro by the Kikuyu.
Over the years, the Rhino Ark Charitable Trust has become synonymous with the fund-raising for the fence around the massif.
For the past 20 years, the Trust has championed the need to manage the water catchments and the indigenous forests, which includes all flora and fauna in the Aberdares. It has raised over Ksh 600 million since its inception, most of it from ordinary Kenyans.
“We are saying to the government that, if as proposed, the fence is managed by a Trust, then the taxpayers’ funds raised need to be matched by funds from the Treasury, shilling for shilling. In this way, the Trust will truly be a public/private partnership. As such it will enable the fence and all flora and fauna within it, the water catchment zones and the indigenous forest to be secured for the bongo and for posterity,” Colin Church says.
“The Trust has pioneered new techniques to ensure the ecosystem can be better managed and all flora and fauna within are conserved. The prime management tool has been the construction of a highly sophisticated best practice electrified fence below and above ground. This fence has resolved human wildlife conflict so that farmers now secure 100 % of their crop and their children are able to walk to school in safety. In return the farmers believe the fence protects them from wildlife molestation and secures their water catchment. These forest edge farmers are the guardians of the Rhino Ark fence. Every one is gaining from it - so long as it is properly maintained and managed,” explains Colin.
The fence also makes it harder for poachers, loggers, politicians and enforcement personnel who have pillaged the country’s indigenous forests with impunity to steal or mismanage the protected zones.
“Rhino Ark also provides financial, logistical and strategic support to the Bongo Surveillance Project, since it is a local community driven group whose members are committed to this specific aspect. The BSP recognises both areas of the Aberdares — those under Kenya Forest Service (gazetted forest) and Kenya Wildlife Service (national park) management as important. The bongo range throughout the ACA comprises 2,000 square kilometres within the 400 kilometre fence alignment, which will be complete in October this year,” says Colin.
However with the changing dynamics of human population expansion coupled with the need for more land for farming and habitation, the concern is also about the future.
“I am hugely encouraged by the work done so far to enable a surveillance presence through BSP,” replies Colin and continues. “Such a task requires further support from donor sources with similar interests and particularly those who see Rhino Ark as the vehicle whose pivotal supporters are the Kenyan taxpayer and the forest edge farmers and who can use our management processes to channel and ensure continued assistance to the BSP.”