for National Geographic News
Kenya's Eburu Forest was once considered inaccessible, thanks to its deep ravines and thick undergrowth. But a hike through its outer fringes these days feels positively crowded.
The sound of axes echoes across the forest constantly, and the forest floor is scarred by dark mounds where wood once smoldered into charcoal.
Yet here scientists and trackers have found what they believe is a new population of the extremely rare mountain bongo. (See a picture of a bongo.)
Based on data from human trackers and a rare camera-trap photograph captured in September 2008, researchers estimate the newfound group includes about 20 members—a surprisingly large count for a subspecies thought to number only 75 to 140 altogether in the wild, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Such small numbers put the bongo, already so close to extinction, at risk for hereditary diseases caused by inbreeding.
Feared extinct as recently as the mid-1990s, the mountain bongo is limited to the forests of a few rugged Kenyan mountains: Eburu and Mount Kenya, as well as peaks in the Aberdare and Mau ranges.
The bongo is an extremely shy creature, with a dozen or so thin white stripes running up and down its chestnut-colored flanks. Larger than any other forest-dwelling antelope, a male can grow to nearly 900 pounds (408 kilograms).
Shy and Stealthy
The find brings new hope for conservationists trying to save an animal that has been under continual pressure from poaching and dwindling habitat for 40 years—without much help from the skittish bongo themselves.
"The animal knows how to hide," Solomon Kirayu, a relentless local bongo tracker, said on a recent hike through Eburu's outer fringes. "Before you get a glimpse, you really have to track it."
The forest's remoteness and the animal's lifestyle add to the difficulty of counting Eburu's bongo.
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