Uncomfortable with our presence, they take shade under thickets of foliage at the foot of Mt Kenya. One of them abruptly dashes in front of us in fright and sheepishly disappears into a canopy.
These are the Mountain Bongo antelopes that are threatened by imminent extinction, with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) labelling them critically endangered. They are the only ones left on the planet, 100 in number and they can only be found in Kenya.
The coppery brown animals with white stripes and spiral horns have in the past been under the constant danger of poaching, with communities living in Karuiria and Kiandongoro in Nyeri County using salt licks and pit traps to capture them in the 1970s.
Other factors that have consistently threatened the Bongos are habitat fragmentation, predation pressure, diseases and hunger.
But the government is moving fast to protect the rare antelope, previously endemic to the Aberdares, Mt Kenya, Cherangani Hills and the Mau Forests Complex, by confining all of them in a special sanctuary in Mt Kenya.
The Ministry of Tourism, Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), Kenya Forest Service and the Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy have teamed up to set aside 776 acres of forest land for the creation of the Mawingu Mountain Bongo Sanctuary.
Extinct in Uganda
Tourism Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala says competing interests such as human settlement, agriculture, illegal logging and climate change have had a devastating effect on the survival of the antelopes.
“The focus on wildlife protection has always been on the larger animals, the smaller ones such as roan antelopes are being ignored. That is why we are creating a special ecological zone for the Mountain Bongos as we try to increase their population,” he said when he launched the sanctuary.
According to Patrick Omondi, Director of Biodiversity and Research at KWS, the government has been working with DNA scientists for bio-scientific approval of bringing all Bongo antelopes in the world to Kenya.
“The Mountain Bongo population has declined from approximately 500 individuals in the 1970s to just 100. This species has been declared extinct in Uganda. We picked a few from the US and brought them here,” he said.
The Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy’s Bongo Rehabilitation programme was named in 2016 among the three most important wildlife projects worldwide by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.