Perhaps the most striking and unusual of the many antelope species on display at Safari West is the Bongo. These creatures are surprising in many ways, not the least of which is their startling coloration and striping. Bongos are large, heavy bodied creatures with vibrant, chestnut-colored coats. While the females tend to remain reddish-brown throughout their lives, the males gradually darken, becoming nearly black in some cases. The rich coloration of their coat is offset by bright and clearly defined vertical stripes—usually twelve to fourteen in number—that run along their chests and flanks.
Within this species, both males and females sport large spiral horns. In both sexes, the horns are angled backward and can be held close against the shoulders when the animal is on the run. This is an important characteristic as the bongo is an inhabitant of deep, dense tropical forests and a laid back horn is less likely to snag on a branch or vine. It may be surprising to many to learn that such a large, round-bodied animal makes its home in dense vegetation but these surprisingly nimble creatures thrive in the tropical rainforests of equatorial Africa.
Within their natural habitat, bongos are known to be most active at night and in the twilight hours. During the day they frequently retreat into deep cover, only emerging along the forest edges or in clearings under cover of darkness. Bongos are known to prefer new growth vegetation that colonizes areas of disturbance. It’s most common to see bongos in the cleared areas that result from logging, elephant disturbance, rock slides, or the burning of fields. Like the forest elephants that create many of these clearings, bongos are also known to make use of naturally occurring mineral salt licks to supply needed trace minerals.
In the modern era, bongo numbers appear to be diminishing, however, the extent of their decline remains a bit of a mystery. These creatures exemplify some of the difficulties of contemporary conservation as their shy nature, vast distribution, dense natural habitat, and wide-ranging habits make it all but impossible to conduct an efficient census of the population. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), there are between 15,000 and 25,000 bongos left in the forests of equatorial Africa. The large margin of error in that estimate is a further indicator of how little is known about wild bongos.
Beyond their surprising size, these animals are also unusual in that they form herds; a rare trait among forest dwelling antelope. While these congregations of bongo are usually limited to five to ten individuals, they have been seen gathering in groups of up to fifty. As yet, this behavior remains poorly understood as bongos seem not to be territorial nor heavily hunted by local predators, two factors thought to be related to herding behavior.
While bongos do suffer a great deal of persecution by humans, most of this is unintentional. Among many local people, there are taboos against the consumption of bongo meat and so targeted hunting of the animals has been rare. Unfortunately, snaring is an increasingly common practice in the countries that constitute the bongos range and snares are indiscriminate killers.
A further complication is the bongos’ popularity among trophy hunters. The economic driver of trophy-hunting tourism coupled with lax or nonexistent regulation in many regions has led to population declines of some significance. On the other hand, hunting has created an economic incentive to ensure that bongos survive in sustainable numbers. This factor is driving some regions to protect bongo habitat and craft regulations that may actually help conserve the species in the long term.
Currently there are two types of bongo recognized and while they aren’t separate species, they do form two distinct and isolated populations. The more common subspecies, the lowland bongo, resides in the tropical belt stretching from Sierra Leone to Togo and Benin. There’s a gap in their range in Nigeria, but then it picks up again and runs through the tropical forests of Cameroon, the Republic of the Congo as well as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, and part of South Sudan. The other subspecies, the mountain bongo, can be found only in four fragmented and isolated populations on a few mountains in Kenya. Where the mountain bongo considered a separate species from its lowland brethren, it would be classified as critically endangered.
As it stands, the bongo is currently assessed as near threatened. Their numbers are decreasing as a result of indiscriminate trapping, trophy hunting, and increasing habitat loss and fragmentation. Current estimates are that the total population has declined by 20% in that last twenty-four years. That said, they remain firmly entrenched in a largely impenetrable habitat and seem to do quite well when left to their own devices.
To this day, the bongo remains one of the most mysterious and least understood of the African antelope. They are rare in the wild and uncommon in captivity. Safari West prides itself on our small but growing family of bongos. Come to Safari West and treat yourself to the rare sight of this amazing and unusual species.