Beautiful Bongos

Measuring 5 feet tall at the shoulder and weighing 500+ pounds, the bongo is a giant among forest antelopes, but one with a shy and wary nature

BY Wendy Perkins

Photography by Ken Bohn

They walk softly and carry big horns. With crisp, thin, white stripes breaking up the russet color of their coat, bongos seem to easily blend into the shadows of their native rain forest habitat. The Safari Park’s herd of bongo have found their own piece of paradise in the northernmost nook of the African Plains habitat. There, with large trees scattering dappled shade, plentiful water and food, and devoted care by animal care staff, the unusual ungulates are thriving—and helping to maintain their species’ numbers.

The Story Between the Stripes

The 12 bongos at the Park have everything under control—the adult females stay fairly close together, with two adolescents grazing and resting nearby. Murray, an adult male, sometimes associates with the others. He also does his own thing when the spirit moves him. “You really can’t force Murray to move if he doesn’t want to,” says Katherine Lies, an exhibit attendant on the Park’s African Plains run. “However, he really likes bananas—sometimes that will convince him to shift to a different spot,” she adds. If bananas don’t do the trick? Well, Katherine and the other team members work around Murray’s moves.

Although Katherine now has a deeper understanding of Murray, she remembers the awe she felt when she first “met” him. “I was really taken aback by him at first,” she remembers. “Standing there, I realized his horns were as long as my torso!”

The Twist

Whether on a male or female, bongo horns are impressive. Bongos belong to a larger group of hoofed animals collectively called the spiral-horned antelope. But where their near-relatives, like the kudu, have horns that spiral more than once and jut outward, a bongo’s horns have only one twist and are pitched back. The latter is key to the animal’s flight response. A bongo moves through its dense forest home quietly, stepping along paths worn in the undergrowth. When threatened by a predator—be it a leopard or a human—it bounds into the surrounding thicket. Once there, it may hold perfectly still, becoming virtually invisible. Or, it may run—body crouched and nose up, so the are horns are parallel to the body to avoid becoming tangled in the dense crush of plants. At times, though, tangling horns in foliage is more deliberate: bongos sometimes use their horns to twist branches to the breaking point, or pull down vines to eat the tender younger leaves that might be out of reach.

A newborn bongo calf (left) is hornless, but begins growing headgear at around four months old. The horns grow in straight, but swept back, as seen on this adolescent (right). It takes a few years of growth before they change direction, creating the twist.

Female bongos live in pairs or small groups in heavily forested areas, while males tend to be solitary. As with other hoofed animals, bongo calves are precocial and can walk shortly after birth. However, a bongo mother usually hides the newborn calf for the first few days. She tucks the baby into a spot among the lush forest flora, visiting only for nursing and a few good nuzzling licks. Once the calf’s legs are strong enough, it moves through the forest with its mother, learning what to eat and what to watch out for.

In their native range, bongos are not particularly selective about the kinds of plants they munch. A study conducted on a group of bongos in southwestern Sudan recorded them eating the leaves of 116 types of plants, mostly from the shrub layer in the forest. Observations of other bongo populations indicate that they often wander into more open areas of lowland forests, where foraging is plentiful and perhaps easier. However, they don’t hesitate to quickly bound back into the safety of the denser forest, where fewer predators move as easily as the bongo.

Hidden Treasures

While the bongo had been discovered in western Africa in 1837, the East African subspecies was not officially reported until 1902. It may seem difficult to understand how a such large and spectacular creature could escape scientific detection for so long. But when one considers the thick undergrowth vegetation that typifies the high-rainfall areas these antelope inhabit, and the highly intrinsic shyness of the animals, it begins to make sense. Until about the 1950s, bongos occurred in fairly good numbers in four parts of Kenya. In the 1990s, mountain bongos were believed to be extinct in their Kenyan range. More recently, reported sightings and trail camera images indicate that the population is clinging to survival.

A bongo’s exceptionally large ears pick up every sound the animal needs to avoid predators. Their characteristic white vertical stripes number from 10 to 15—and it’s not unusual to find a different number on each side of the animal’s body.

At the present time, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) categorizes bongos as a Near Threatened species. However, the most recent online summary (2016) of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species notes that the bongo “…faces an ongoing population decline as habitat loss and hunting pressures increase with the expansion of human settlement and commercial forestry. The level of decline is estimated to have reached more than 20 percent over 24 years…but this may be an underestimate…and more intensive monitoring is required.” Human teams follow signs of feeding, drinking, resting, and defecating to identify where bongos currently exist—population counts are based mainly on track and fecal sightings.

In Kenya, hunting bongos has been banned since 1977, and conservation efforts continue through the energy of boots-on-the-ground groups, as well as zoos around the world. San Diego Zoo Global participates in the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan for bongos, and actively supports the International Bongo Foundation, as well as the Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy’s bongo conservation work. With experts of all stripes joining the cause, there’s hope for these spectacular forest denizens.