On March 9, wildlife veterinarian Dr Robert Aruho supervised the release of five critically endangered bongo antelopes into the Mawingu Mountain Bongo Sanctuary, a new 100-acre forest sanctuary on Mt Kenya.
It is the first time that eastern mountain bongos, a critically endangered animal endemic to Kenya, has ever been rewilded.
“It was a great moment for the conservancy and I because we are trying to reverse extinction of the mountain bongo,” said Aruho, head of conservancy at the Mt Kenya Wildlife Conservancy where the bongos came from.
A seasoned wildlife vet, Aruho specialises in the capture, translocation and rewilding of threatened animals, having receiving specialised training in wildlife capture in Zimbabwe. As a rhino coordinator in Uganda, he participated in the translocation of six white rhinos from Disney’s Animal Kingdom, the US and Solio Ranch in Kenya to the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary in central Uganda in 2006.
“We took them through a journey to help them regain their wild instincts, acclimatise and breed.”
Now he is at the forefront of Kenya’s mountain bongo rewilding programme.
A 2019 national wildlife census showed less than 100 wild bongos in Kenya.
“It is important we enforce survival of the population before their extinction in the wild,” says Aruho, who hails from Uganda. He worked with Uganda Wildlife Authority before joining the Conservancy in early 2021.
Aruho says the bongos have settled down well in the sanctuary and, “are able to find food, locate water sources and move about.”
His team monitors them daily using wildlife camera traps and physical sightings by patrolling rangers. The plan is to rewild another five animals later in the year, and 10 bongos each year.
Aruho, 36, was born near the Maramagambo Forest in western Uganda. His father was a farmer, tending tea plantations near the forest and young Aruho would sometimes join him.
“I was lucky to see different wildlife species that would come to the edge of our shamba,” he said.
This childhood experience inspired his love for nature. “When I was around five years old, I told my parents that I wanted to become a doctor of animals.”
Aruho graduated in veterinary sciences from Makerere University in 2011 and obtained a Master of Science from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland in 2018.
His career has taken him to several countries including Congo and Namibia. This is not his first stint in Kenya. In 2014, he was nominated for an exchange programme in Kenya, part of engagements between East African wildlife authorities to enhance capacities in wildlife management. Aruho was deployed to the rhino veterinary unit of Kenya Wildlife Service for a year.
Mt Kenya Conservancy, which also has an animal orphanage, a typical day for Aruho begins at 6am and ends 8pm or 9pm. Under his care are 38 mammal species including bongos, zebras, monkeys, buffaloes, bush bucks, cheetahs and two leopards.
He oversees the monitoring of wildlife, feeding, and births, liaises with sanctuary rangers, handles administrative work and supervises 54 people. “I hardly notice the long hours fly by because I really love animals and conservation,” he says.
There are 64 captive bongos at the Conservancy, all descended from 18 animals repatriated to Kenya from American zoos in 2004.
“With less than 100 animals in the forests, the only source for rewilding is from our captive breeding programme,” said Aruho.
It took years for the bongos to become independent of human support, adapt to a natural environment, resistant to diseases and suitable for rewilding. “But finally their natural instincts kicked in and they started to breed at the Conservancy.”