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Rare Kenyan Bongo Antelope Return Home

Following a successful 35-year captive breeding program in the United States, 18 rare African mountain antelopes, called bongo, have been returned to their native habitat near Mount Kenya, where they had disappeared in recent years. VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu has details from the bongo's new home at a game ranch in the central Kenyan highland town of Nanyuki.

As dawn breaks over Africa's second-highest mountain, three large trucks pull into specially-built 40-hectare holding pens on the grounds of the Mount Kenya Game Ranch.

On the trucks, breeding pairs of rare mountain bongo antelopes move restlessly inside huge wooden crates, which carried them here on their long journey from the United States on a chartered plane.

It takes nearly a dozen men to unload each crate from the truck. Reddish-brown female Bongo, with vertical white stripes and delicately spiraling horns, weigh an average of 200 kilograms. The slightly darker-colored males can weigh as much as 300 kilograms.

Despite their imposing appearance, the antelopes are vulnerable to stress-related illnesses, and there is concern that some of the bongo may not have fared well during the trip.

To the relief of the American owner of the game ranch, Don Hunt, and the American and Kenyan zoologists looking on, all 18 animals bolt out of the crates, looking bewildered but healthy.

For Mr. Hunt, the successful return of the mountain bongo to Mount Kenya is the realization of a 35-year-long dream.

In the late 1960s, the former game hunter turned conservationist and his partner at the ranch, the late Hollywood actor William Holden, noticed that the wild mountain bongo population on Mount Kenya was declining rapidly, mostly through poaching and human encroachment into the forests where the bongo lived.

Desperate to save what they believed were one of the most magnificent types of antelope in the world, Mr. Hunt says he and Mr. Holden came up with an idea of how to prevent their extinction.

"You could see the bongo were going to be overwhelmed by this human population explosion," he said. "So we got together with the Kenyan government and made a deal with them that we would purchase 20 bongo from them and we would send them off to the States so that there would be a gene pool there."

In their native habitat in the central Kenyan highlands, mountain bongo are extremely shy and will rarely venture out of the forest. Consequently, it took Don Hunt two decades to catch all 20 bongo safely and without causing stress to the animals.

These captured antelopes eventually formed the core of a mountain bongo breeding program in more than 10 zoos and wildlife parks in the United States. The program was so successful, there are now about 400 bongo in captivity there.

In contrast, the number of wild mountain bongo left in all of the central Kenyan highlands has fallen to no more than several dozen. On Mount Kenya, the last bongo was spotted 10 years ago.

An American zoologist from Fort Worth, Texas, Ron Surratt, has spearheaded the scientific effort to repopulate the bongo on Mount Kenya.

Since the bongo from the United States were born and raised in captivity, they cannot be released directly into the wild. But Mr. Surratt says the bongo were carefully selected for their genetic compatibility so that they will breed and produce offspring, which can then be released.

He says the relocation and breeding project, the first of its kind anywhere in the world, shows that zoos have a role to play in conservation and the preservation of species.

"You had this gene pool so that you can put something back," he said. "And that is just the ultimate thing for a zoologist. It is great to have people come and see the animals, see them breed and all this, but if you can not ever put them back, it is not complete. When you do this and put something back, that is what makes it so grand."

For his part, Don Hunt, the game ranch owner, is now focused on using the bongo to help local communities. He has launched a bongo awareness program so that the people can come to appreciate the animals and help wildlife officials protect them.

Mr. Hunt says his aim is to convince local people that if the bongo thrive, there will be economic benefits through increased tourism and development in the area.