‘Msituni’ and/or The Perils of an Unborn Baby Bongo
By Iris Hunt
Precious because it’s a stroke of good fortune that she’s alive at all.
Her survival also symbolizes a long cherished project finally underway: The hopeful regeneration of the rarest, most valuable- ‘most precious’ of the great African antelopes, Mountain Bongo, in its original, natural habitat on Mount Kenya.
Now, that the new baby Bongo is one month old, she has already become a part of our growing family. But this was no ordinary ‘routine birth’ at the Orphanage. It was almost an impromptu, advance “return to the wild” in a way symbolic of the project that currently preoccupies us all.
The Mountain Bongo disappeared from Mount Kenya many years ago, mostly a casualty of illegal hunting and the encroachment of civilization.
Few amongst us are still alive to bear witness to when this magnificent antelope with its spiral horns and the distinctive striped, burnished bronze color of its skin roamed the vast virgin forests of Mount Kenya. But we have now finally reached the first phase one our long held ambition – a dream really – that we would be able to return these magnificent animals to their natural home in the ancient, still pristine cedar forests that border the Ranch.
The end of January would see the arrival of 18 captive bred decendents of Mount Kenya Bongo, donated by various zoological institutions and sanctuaries in the United States and Canada, to join our surviving herd of bongo in the eventual restocking program.
As it happened, Don was out making ready their temporary enclosures with the fencing crew when our game scouts drew his attention to one of our resident bongo whose time for calving was drawing close.
Named “Kadogo” Kiswahili for ‘tiny one’ when she was born on the Ranch a few years before, was now in her prime and had already had a baby of her own. The pregnancy had been normal and so, no difficulty was anticipated.
As a precaution we usually walk expectant bongo mothers to a special “calving pen”, a kind of stable with two ‘stalls’ inside the orphanage. The rear stall is dark and although the animal can see out, it does afford her maximum privacy when she goes into labor. The front stall is fully open to the skies, so that, afterwards, she can slip out to go “next door whenever she feels the need for quiet time away from the baby as nursing bongo mothers often do.
The major reason for this ‘arrangement’ is to provide mother and young with a comfortable, convenient and safe environment-security being a factor since from time to time we get wild leopard visiting the Ranch. In the wild the burly adult bongo are normally able to fend off the relatively lighter carnivore. They are also fierce in a fight and for that reason leopards tend to opt against attacking them. Small vulnerable calves are a different proposition of course, and as the bongo is so rare we did not want to take any chances. Should the mother wander too far from the protection of her herd she would be at risk.
With everyone busy with preparations for the arrival of the ‘other’ bongo coming from overseas, Muraya, one of our most experienced keepers was assigned to ‘walk’ the highly pregnant Kadogo to the calving pen inside the Orphanage. He had done so before with other bongo mothers that knew and trusted him.
But the tetchy mother-to-be had other ideas. She followed his lead to the stable, but point blank refused to go into it. Eventually frustrated, Muraya was persuaded that there would be minimal risk in allowing her to stay one night in the enclosed and guarded Orphanage. He figured she would be more co-operative in the morning.
He took the decision “in good faith” of course, but his ward betrayed his trust as we were soon to discover.
By morning she was gone from the Orphanage, nowhere to be seen in the vicinity.
Muraya was on a day off, so it was his stand-in, Peter, who raised the alarm when he came on duty at dawn. A team of scouts immediately fanned out across the Ranch to check the rest of the free ranging bongo herd, but Kadogo hadn’t reattached herself to any of the groups.
The question was: How had she managed to escape from the Orphanage without the night watchman either seeing or hearing the crash of her breakout.
After a while we found out by following up her spoor. Astonishingly – and worryingly – she had leapt clear over the six foot perimeter fence.
Highly pregnant about to give birth, a jump like this could have seriously injured her. It was very critical that we found her quickly to avert a possible disaster.
The scouts re-checked the rest of the Bongo- “if only they could talk’ the abject thought occurred. But there was no sign or sight of her.
They combed the bush around the herds, thinking that she may be close to her herd . With the birthing so close, keeping under cover in a thicket was what she would do in the wild.
They searched every likely retreat, without result.
But what they did find, to our horror was a dead half eaten reedbuck, Leopards’ favorite food!
A hurried radio message brought Don to the scene. He confirmed the grisly truth. We had indeed been visited by one of the forest’s best camouflaged silent predators making a nocturnal excursion onto the Ranch for an “easy kill”.
The cat would be back that night for sure. If we failed to locate Kadogo by then, the chances were she would be calving – possibly scented by the hungry leopard. He would hardly fail to take the easiest of opportunities, the new born baby.
Don called up more men to widen the search. Hours passed, but finally the nerve-fraying tension was relieved in a radio message from the scouts. They’d found her.
She was in the furthest corner of the Ranch, close to the forest and close to where the leopard had climbed the fence to seek out its victim reedbuck.
It was near dusk when we got the call. But we had no option than to rush down anyway to see if anything might be done. Don took a bagful of “milk” cubes, Kadogo’s favorite food hoping they might entice her to follow us to safety. But she would have none of it. Like a wild bongo, she fought off anyone – us included – who came too close.
Maybe Muraya, her accustomed keeper would fare better, we wondered. Maybe he could calm here down.
But he was in town, at his home in Nanyuki, enjoying his break with his family. Tough luck Muraya! We sent people off to root him out and he duly arrived just before dark.
He moved straight away towards the agitated, still defensive Bongo and, alarmingly, she almost disemboweled him. She charged, head low, her sharp spiral horns aimed at the tall man’s middle like an enraged bull in a corrida.
But with the grace of a matador, he executed a ballistic pass that would have impressed old Papa Hemingway- (as much as an aficionado of African game, of course, as he was of Spanish fighting bulls).
Kadogo’s lethal horns mercifully brushed by his leg, leaving her floundering in angry confusion, retreating deeper into the bush. That was a sure sign that her time was near. It was also the reason for her fighting for her life, or for the imminent baby’s life. Instinctively she would be impelled to deliver alone and in dense protective cover.
We were still greatly anxious of course. Without the ultimate shield of a watchful herd in the immediate area, the prowling Leopard, if it was close, would smell the blood of the birthing and launch an attack on her lair.
Muraya was feeling somewhat remorseful over the plight she was in, holding himself responsible for her perilous bolt from the Orphanage. For lack of any better idea, he volunteered to stand watch for the night outside the thicket hiding the bongo.
Two of the other men joined to keep him company, showing courage as well as comradeship since none of them would be armed with anything but sticks to guard the bongo in her confinement against the claws of the vicious killer. They did not ask for any “creature comforts”, a flask of tea or whatever, to see them through what would be a cold and long night’s vigil.
As always we were both impressed and grateful. It was yet another demonstration of the loyal, often selfless, stoic devotion of the Ranch staff to their various duties of care for the animals.
Don and I also hardly slept that night, staying close to the radio just in case. Should there be a call of alarm from the men guarding the bongo, Don was standing by with his rifle and was otherwise ready for a quick response should the leopard or any other serious danger threaten the men and the bongo mother-to-be.
We had discussed the contingencies and decided that, in the event, – grim thought that it was – he would not kill the leopard to save the bongo – only to save a man’s life.
But the night passed without a call and we were there to watch the dawn sun rising over Mount Kenya with its usual gilded array of colors slowly lighting the jagged, snowy peaks.
Don was the first out and brought back the happy news: The baby bongo had been safely born. Mother was also doing fine. No longer upset she let us come closer. Parting the bush we got our first glimpse of her licking her new off-spring to dry it from the birth and stimulate its breathing. The men quickly removed what was left of the afterbirth that would alert any predator hiding nearby.
The new born, although on its feet, was still a little wobbly. Within a few hours she would walk more steady. By the end of the day she would be strong enough to walk a distance. This time the mother followed Muraya willingly with the little one bouncing along on her first “Safari”. Mother and baby spent their first night together in the safety of the calving boma.
We all decided to call the new arrival Msituni (pronounced Moostoone). It means: ‘In the bush’.
Msituni and her mother enjoyed the rest and privacy in the boma for 3 weeks. After that, the door is left open and they are free to leave. Usually only the mother ventures out alone at first. When she deems the time right, she will summon her young and introduce it to the herd, and the world around her.
In thirty years this has been the first mother bongo of our small nucleus herd that has preferred to give birth in the bush. It was almost as if she was going to beat the ‘American’ bongo on their way back to Mount Kenya.
Msituni will certainly be known as the first calf born in the bush, half way back to their ancestral home.
As she grows she will be introduced to her U.S. born cousins. Hopefully they will breed. Most importantly, Msituni carries the genes that retain the wild instinct that will eventually lead their offspring back to the wilds of the Mount Kenya forests where they belong.