The average person hears the word “bongo” and thinks of a pair of small Afro-Cuban hand drums with which one can play fun and danceable rhythms. Bongos are also extremely rare antelopes native to Kenya that haven’t been spotted in the wild in almost 30 years.
Bongos used to roam free across Kenya’s forests. Their population has suffered in the wild and now sits below 100. Humans are the reason for these critically low numbers. Colonial-era hunters went after the dark brown animals for their delicately striped hides and spiral horns which they made into rugs and wall ornaments. Other factors contributing to the bongo population’s decline are human habitation encroachment and the spread of cattle diseases in the 20th century.
Bongos’ risk of extinction has often been disregarded, even by wildlife lovers. They’re usually upstaged by their more eye-catching peers like rhinos, elephants, and lions, but according to Najib Balala, Kenya’s minister of tourism and wildlife, “[bongos] are the ones we have ignored for a long time, and now, we are putting emphasis on them.”
Kenya started a rewilding program that began with relocating bongos living in American zoos to Kenya in the early 2000s. The relocated bongos were domesticated, unaccustomed to Kenyan weather, and relied on people for their survival. With time and effort each generation of bongos became more independent and started tuning in to their natural instincts.
Five mountain bongos were released earlier this month into the Mawingu Mountain Bongo Sanctuary in Kenya. The plan is to continue releasing five more bongos every six months. The Kenya Wildlife Service hopes that by 2050, at least 750 wild bongos will once again be roaming free in Kenya’s equatorial forests.
“Finally, these bongos are being rewilded,” Balala exclaimed at the opening of the Mawingo Mountain Bongo Sanctuary. “What a celebration. What a success.”