for National Geographic News
After a 44-hour journey from the United States, 18 rare mountain bongo antelopes emerged from their shipping crates and set foot on their ancestral homeland of Kenya. It may have been one small step for the bongo antelopes, but a giant leap toward the survival of their species.
The January 30 homecoming was four decades in the making.
In the 1960s a group of conservationists, including actor William Holden, became concerned about shrinking wildlife populations in Kenya. They captured 30 bongos from the slopes of Mount Kenya and shipped them to U.S. zoos for breeding.
With their rich red coat, prominent white stripes, and lyre-shaped horns, the bongos became a big hit with zoo goers. Thriving in captivity, their U.S. population now exceeds 400.
In Kenya, meanwhile, the bongo antelopes, victims of deforestation and poaching, are teetering on the brink of extinction. Less than a hundred remain in the Aberdares Conservation Area, and experts believe the last of the bongos in the Mount Kenya region vanished ten years ago.
To help save the bongos from extinction conservationists recently persuaded 13 zoos across the U.S. to donate 18 bongos (descendents of the animals shipped from Kenya decades ago) for repatriation to the Mount Kenya Game Ranch. There, the animals will form the stock for a breeding and management program that will enable bongos to eventually be released into the wild.
The program has the potential not only to save the Kenyan bongos, but also to revive the fragile ecosystem of Mount Kenya National Park, which is now a UN World Heritage site. The bongos are well-recognized ambassadors for East Africa's mountain forests. Some experts hope their reintroduction could become a model for biodiversity-conservation efforts.
"Quite often when you see critically endangered species dwindling in the wild, there's a last gasp and they're gone forever," said Paul Reillo, director of the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation in Loxahatchee, Florida, which organized the repatriation. "This is a rare and unprecedented example of giving these species a second chance."
Almost six feet (two meters) high, the mountain bongos (Boocercus eurycerus isaaci) are the largest of all forest antelopes. Although they are notoriously shy, they sometimes freeze in place when in distress, making them easier to catch.
The mountain bongos' stock has plummeted in the past 50 years, mainly because of unrestricted hunting, poaching, and lion predation.
Deforestation has also taken an enormous toll on the bongos' natural habitat, with farmland encroaching on the wild forest. Wildlife corridors that once connected Mount Kenya and the Aberdare Mountainswhere small bongo populations are believed to have survivedhave long been severed.
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