Two beautiful African animals face extinction because wildlife officials and scientists can’t agree on how to reintroduce zoo-bred individuals. And interestingly, it’s now become something of a contest (battle?) between the American zoo-world, and the American museum-world.
According to the IUCN, the mountain bongo and Rothschild giraffe face extinction in the wild if immediate efforts to reintroduce zoo-bred offspring aren’t successful.
I had just started my safari businesses in the 1970s when we routinely saw both animals on each and every safari. The bongo appeared nightly at The Ark and other tree hotels, and we often stopped on any rural road anywhere in Laikipia and could see a Rothschild.
This is as big news for Africa as the demise of the polar bear is to North America. The Aberdare National Park’s insignia continues to be the bongo. So in my life time, two large poster animals have almost disappeared.
There are plenty in zoos. Why can’t we just … put them back? Well, we tried. And failed. So far.
There is more hope for the Rothschild than the bongo. The Rothschild is living and breeding well in several places in Kenya, especially Lake Nakuru National Park. The problem is that these are not truly wild ecosystems: animal movement in or out of Nakuru was stopped when it was fenced more than 15 years ago.
There are 65 Rothschild in Lake Nakuru. There is a population twice as large in the unenclosed Ruma National Park (formerly “Lambwe Valley”) adjacent Lake Victoria in Kenya’s remote western province.
But small 50-square mile Ruma is considered critically threatened by encroaching farmland. It’s hard to get to so draws few tourists and so no revenue for wildlife management. And it’s surrounded either by the waters of Lake Victoria or densely populated areas: not a real fence, but a human fence.
There may be an additional 600 animals in various, remote and scattered places in the wild in Kenya, Uganda and the southern Sudan. But definitely no more. Uganda’s remote Kidepo National Park may hold the healthiest population.
American zoos have bred Rothschild giraffe extremely well but none are being exported back to East Africa, because of the embarrassing debacle of trying to do so with bongo. Eighteen bongo were sent to Kenya for reintroduction in 2004 but they have yet to be reintroduced into the wild.
The bongos came from Busch Gardens, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, the Houston Zoo, the Cape May County Zoo, the International Animal Exchange, the Jacksonville Zoo, the Los Angeles Zoo, the Peace River Refuge, the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation, the San Diego Zoo, the St. Louis Zoo, the Virginia Zoological Park, and White Oak Conservation Center.
Big consortium. Cost lots of money. And six years later the bongo is in worse condition than before. There are now only 103 bongos left in the wild. In 2004 when the zoos made their move, there were about 200.
Half the wild bongo population lives in the Aberdare National Park and I’m still lucky enough about every 3 or 4 visits to see one. The other half of the population is scattered in Kenya’s unprotected forests and on Mt. Kenya.
The penned-up for-reintroduction 18 bongos are something of a sore spot among us non scientific wildlife enthusiasts. But officials argue that simply releasing zoo animals into the wild is a near death sentence. They must be taught to fend for themselves – no easy task – and they must develop an acute vigilance against predation, also hardly a cinch.
But you’d think if six years weren’t enough schooling for zoo animals to learn the wild ways that they wouldn’t have been sent to Kenya in the first place. For Pete’s sakes, give them to Spielberg!
Bongo declined rapidly in the 1980s because of encroaching human populations around the giant Aberdare reserve that forced lions from the savannah into its altitudes. Lions don’t normally live in rainforests: No zebra or wildebeest up there, but the 300 kg bongo is just as tasty.
In less than a decade, the lions were eating the bongo to extinction, until the lion were forcibly removed from the Aberdare, and the Aberdare was then fenced.
So why not just drop them back into the Aberdare, now? The park is fenced and there are no lion!
Because those 18 bongos, (as well as another 500 bongos still kept in worldwide zoos), all came from a single wild population extracted from the Aberdare in the 1960s. It’s feared the inbreeding would be as devastating as lion.
Didn’t anyone know this before buying their airline tickets in 2004?
According to a press statement issued a few weeks ago by the Kenya Wildlife Service, The American Natural History Museum has now become involved, an interesting assertion that American zoos couldn’t muster enough good science to figure this out in the last six years.
ANHM will supposedly run critical DNA science on both the Kenyan-held, zoo-held and wild populations to help KWS decide where to go from here.
I hope it isn’t back to Orlando.
After working and living in E Africa for a large part of the past ten years (certainly not your 40), I usually find your thoughts well grounded and interesting – I often forward your link to others. However, this time you acted like a bad reporter on a tight deadline. Missing from your story were tidbits about how the animals got to Africa, who was responsible for the program? Who maintains the ‘soft release’ program? Who in Kenya didnt check the source of the animals before stamping the import permit or signing the MOU? What are the IUCN guidelines for reintroduction, what do they say about planning a reintroduction, doing soft release training and genetic management of animals? Why would KWS allow this to happen without properly following IUCN guidelines for reintroduction of these flagship spp? Your assertion seems to be that it is the fault of zoos due to a lack of scientists. That they magically shipped them to Africa one day (have you ever tried to coordinate this many zoos?) This not only belies a lack of homework that you seem to have done in your previous posts, but seems to have a sensationalist agenda not present in your other posts. As a matter of fact, the director of the program of the museum that you mention spent most of his career in zoos and still partners with many of their scientists today – there is a great deal of collaboration between museums with dead animals and museums with live animals. I would love to see you write an actual full story on this topic so we can better assess the truth of the matter.
I look forward to your next, well researched, post.
Thanks for your remarks, and I must say that I’ve received more than a couple similar notes from people who, for some reason, did not want them posted on this blog.
I’m beginning to feel a mea culpa of some proportion is called for, but keep in mind this is a blog, not a journal. All the questions you pose are critical, but I don’t feel that’s my responsibility to answer. A blog like this is meant to pose the uncomfortable question.
And despite all the ruffled feathers I’ve been feeling sent my way, I still haven’t had anyone explain:
– Good to hear the people at AMNH are zoo-oriented, but why were the zoos not integrated into their work with the KWS?
– What happened in 2004? Why did that consortium freight out the bongo without knowing that KWS would not relocate them?
I just don’t feel that the American animal-world feels the crisis with bongo. Ultimately the question is, what do we do, now, and can we do it quickly?