After three months spent in quarantine at the White Oak Conservation Center in Yulee, Florida, the 4 male and 14 female bongos were sedated, loaded onto a DC-8 cargo airplane, and flown to Nairobi, the Kenyan capital. From there, they traveled by truck to the ranch in Nanyuki, at the foothills of the Mount Kenya UN World Heritage site.
At sunrise on January 30, 44 hours after their journey began, the bongos were finally released into fenced enclosures similar to their captive environments in the U.S. zoos. The animals, looking surprisingly refreshed, jumped out of the crates and headed for a quick meal at some thick bushes, an encouraging sign to the conservationists.
Six days after their arrival, one female even gave birth to a baby bongo, which was named Kenya.
The zoo animals will spend the rest of their lives in a 100-acre (40-hectare) breeding enclosure because they are too tame to run free. But if all goes according to plan, they will give birth to new generations of bongos that are more wary of humans.
It could be a decade, however, before the animals are returned to the wild, Reillo said. "At least three to five generations are necessary to remove humans from the equation."
Scientists would like to bring over two dozen bongos every year, but funding such a repatriation program is a major challenge. The airplane charter alone cost U.S. $240,000. "Reintroduction of species is extremely expensive," Reillo said. "It is far cheaper to save an animal while it still exists in the wild."
The return of the bongos was partly funded by the United Nations, and it's part of a broader conservation initiative by the UN around Mount Kenya. The UN program has so far reduced illegal logging by 99 percent and forest fuelwood consumption by 50 percent.
"It's not about moving bongos from the United States and plunking them into a World Heritage site," said Seema Paul, the senior program officer for biodiversity at the United Nations Foundation in Washington, D.C. "A lot of effort has gone into creating conditions in which local communities would welcome these animals back and make sure they survive, that they thrive, and that they do not become extinct again."
She says the bongos can provide economic benefits.
"We're concerned with poverty alleviation, and one of the ways we can contribute to that effort is by promoting sustainable tourism," Paul said. "The expectation is that this reintroduction will attract more tourism to the area, which we hope will translate into better revenues for local communities."
The Rare Species Conservation Foundation used a similar conservation model for preserving a flagship species several years ago on the Caribbean island of Dominica. There, a national park was set up around the rare sisserou parrot, Dominica's national bird. The foundation's Paul Reillo sees a similar opportunity for the mountain bongo.
"Mount Kenya is one of the highest-priority biodiversity sites on Earth, and certainly one of the richest forest ecosystems in Africa," Reillo said. "On top of that, we have this very famously rare creature that has all but disappeared from the ecosystem."
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