January 2004 in retrospect: The BBC amongst other reputed television networks reports the return of 20 of Africa’s rarest and most elusive antelope, the Mountain Bongo, to Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy.
5 years on – January 2009: In anticipation of a first wilderness release later this year, a BBC film crew has returned to Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy to film Mountain Bongo for a 3-part natural history series about Kenya. As the film rolls, we follow the crew around with our own camera and bear witness to a very special reunion.
It’s 6.30 in the morning. Whilst guests at the adjacent Mount Kenya Safari Club are still sleeping, our Wildlife Officer Fundi is directing a dark green Land Cruiser across the Conservancy, many pairs of eyes on us. Initially, we were reluctant to allow visitors into this remote forest area where our bongo are being conditioned to survive in the wild without any human interference.
Years ago, Mount Kenya was home to numerous herds of Mountain Bongo. Since 1995, none have been sighted on Mount Kenya. They may be have become extinct due to population pressure and pursuant poaching in the National Park, brought under control only recently.
The BBC and Kenyan film crew understand the sensitive nature of this endangered species. They come to highlight the many years of preservation and captive breeding at the Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy and to increase public awareness of the ongoing efforts to re-establish the bongo in its natural habitat.
As President Obama’s daughter Sasha is making her first steps in the spotlight, her namesake at our Conservancy is getting her own first taste of fame. Unsure of the lens pointed at her, she carefully circles the camera. Its highly experienced operator is so unobtrusive that mother “Miss Kenya” continues to graze within an arm length of him. A bongo with her newborn calf, in the distance, the sun is rising over Mount Kenya – a vision that has motivated us throughout the years has become a reality.
Lead by Fundi, we follow the film team deeper into the forest where the steep terrain and dense undergrowth make progress difficult. Here, only trained eyes can make out the camouflaged coat of the bongo whose white stripes resemble streaks of sunlight breaking through the bush.
Despite expert tracking, patient waiting and a powerful zoom lens, some of the bongo remain invisible. Never before have bongo been filmed in their natural habitat. Our efforts to turn captive born bongo back into wild animals appear to have born success – this first group of bongo earmarked for release already avoids human contact and seems ready for the last stage of their rehabilitation back to the wild.
5 years have past since the BBC’s first filming, a journey that has seen our initial small herd of bongo increase to 62. More than 43,000 Kenyan students have since seen this magnificent antelope and learned that the survival of this unique and rare species lies in their hands.
Bongo will continue to fascinate anyone who has ever laid eyes on them. Hopefully in the near future they will once again roam the land of their ancestors. Shy and elusive but their sightings will be rare. Meanwhile Mount Kenya Animal Orphanage continues to offer visitors the opportunity to view younger animals bred there and destined for future releases.