The Eastern Mountain Bongo (Tragelaphus euryceros Isaaci) is a rare antelope only found in Kenya. It is believed that fewer than 200 animals now survive in the wild, mostly in the dense forest areas of the upper Aberdare mountain range. A few animals are also found in Mt. Kenya and Eburu. The bongo is a shy, elusive creature that in recent times has only been sighted by a handful of people.
[Bongo picture taken by trap camera]
72-year old Peter Mwangi is among the few living humans that have seen Bongo in the wild. Born into a poor family of hunter-gatherers living in the Aberdares, he was inducted into the forest life from early childhood. Following in the footsteps of his father, he learnt honey gathering and hunting game for meat in the misty forests of the Aberdares through the 1940’s. He perfected tracking wildlife from spoor, examining hoof prints, droppings and even how twigs had been chewed to determine which animal had passed.
In the 1950’s and 60’s Peter’s tracking skills kept him in gainful employment. He worked as a tracker for Tony Archer, a professional game hunter, and later on for Don Hunt who captured live bongo for export to foreign zoos. Between 1967 and 1978 he helped Don capture 27 bongo.
By the turn of the new millennium, a wind of change was blowing in local conservation circles. The population of bongo had been decimated by habitat loss, poaching and bush meat hunting. Realization had dawned that unless drastic steps were taken, these beautiful animals would be lost forever. There had been no reported sightings of bongo in years, and many wondered if any were even left.
By 2003 an initiative to protect the bongo had come into being. The Bongo Surveillance Programme was conceived by Mike Prettejohn, a former game hunter-turned conservationist. Mike recruited a team from amongst the local community with experience in wildlife tracking to carry out surveillance of bongo habitat to determine their population and range. This team became known as the Bongo Surveillance Unit. Through mutual acquaintance Tony Archer, Peter was introduced to Mike and joined the team.
Mike, the architect of the surveillance programme, determines possible bongo areas using aerial patrol, plots the GPS coordinates and plans the teams’ activities. The ground surveillance teams use Mike’s data in the forest. A typical bongo surveillance operation in the forest lasts about 2 weeks and involves a 5 to 6 man team accompanied, for security, by armed Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) rangers. From an initial base camp they split into groups of 3 and patrol an area for 3-4 days. They collect data on bongo tracks, droppings, signs of poaching activity, sightings of poachers, illegal loggers and any other relevant information. They set up trap cameras at areas such as salt licks known to be visited by bongo, and download the images taken. Their findings are compiled, analysed and shared with KWS.
[trap camera inspection and download]
Through this initiative, supported by Rhino Ark and various local and international donors, a clearer picture has begun to emerge about the bongo population and range. The bongos’ excellent hearing and adeptness at hiding make them hard to spot, and most evidence of their presence is indirect, through spoor, droppings and trap camera pictures. Peter is one of the lucky few to have seen bongo up close. In 2004 he sighted a group of 14 bongo at Wandare in the north eastern Aberdares, and in July last year he saw a bongo cow and calf.
[BSU patrol on the move]
I posed the question to Peter of what role the local communities play in conserving or endangering the bongo. He shared an anecdote on how the most skilled bongo poachers were men of his generation, people he knew personally, and most of whom have passed on or retired and have not passed on their ‘trade’ to their descendants. The constant presence of the surveillance team in the forest has also acted as a deterrent to poachers as the likelihood of discovery is much increased. The members of the team, some of whom may have otherwise turned to poaching are gainfully employed and now appreciate the importance of conservation. Peter observed that many young people in the local communities are not familiar with the bongo, but that the schools outreach component of the bongo programme was beginning to make a positive impact.
I asked Peter why he does this work. His reply was simple: it is what he knows, he’s good at it and it has helped him provide for his family. Two of his sons have followed in his footsteps and are now members of the team, so the family legacy carries on into the next generation. Though soft spoken and slight of build, Peter exudes the energy of someone half his age. He still puts in as much field patrol time as any of the other team members and shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon – a truly remarkable feat.
[Peter (centre) and sons Laban (left) and Stanley (right)]
Local communities can, do, and should play a greater role in conservation. The experience of the bongo surveillance team, made up of community members clearly proves this point.