When I was researching the chapter on bongo conservation in Kenya for the fifth and final book in the spiral horn series, Hunting the Spiral Horns – Bongo & Nyala – The Elite African Trophies, I was shocked to learn that there were less than 140 Eastern or Kenya or mountain bongo left in the country according to the Bongo Surveillance Project headed up by the ex-Kenyan professional hunter, Mike Prettejohn. I knew, of course, that since this country banned hunting in 1977, they had lost over 70% of their wildlife but had not the faintest idea that one of Africa’s iconic antelope species was on the verge of extinction and that even the few left were showing advanced signs of inbreeding. This struck me as being particularly odd as a friend of mine, Jeff Rann, owner of the famous 777 Game Ranch in Texas, hosts over 80 bongo on the property, more than half those in the wild and he hunts his regularly.
What bothered me even more was that in 2004, 18 bongo were repatriated to Mount Kenya Game Ranch for release into the wild. The Rare Species Conservatory Foundation from Miami made available a further 20 and the Aspinall Foundation from the UK indicated a willingness to provide more still but, to date, not one has been released! In 2010 at a big round table meeting in Kenya to discuss the problem, the government undertook responsibility for the fencing of six Intensive Special Protective Zones identified to give the released animals better protection but only one area has been fenced and then by the main private sector conservation organisation in Kenya, Rhino Ark. On the other hand, six whole years later, the private sector scientists have not managed to decide which, if any, of these animals was suitable for release into the wild! I mean, talk about paralysis by analysis. This makes Nero’s fiddling seem positively action-packed!
In researching my chapter for the book, I was told that, “In the early days it was challenging as the repatriated, captive bred bongos had lost their immunity to some local bovine diseases, such as theileriosis, transmitted by African ticks. Since these initial difficulties, however, the repatriated bongo have bred well and new generations of wild Kenya mountain bongo have also been born. If the former bongo are healthy and suitable for relocation, this could be critical in the next steps to boost the recovery of the populations of genetically fragile, wild Kenya mountain bongo.” So what is the problem?
And is the decision making that difficult? The short answer is NO. And how do I, a simple hunter, know this. Well, I was lucky to meet two super smart, hard-working ladies at Huntex in April. Imke Lüders is not only a German veterinarian, founder of GeoLifes and co-founder of the NGO, Pro Fetura, but also graduated summa cum laude in her Ph.D. in zoo and wildlife medicine. Her partner and counterpart in South Africa is Ilse Luther, the holder of an MTech in veterinary technology and about to complete her Ph.D. in reproductive biology. Ilse is the founder of GeoSperm, the local branch of GeoLifes and the co-founder of Pro Fetura, whose aim is to use Assisted Reproduction Technologies (ART) in zoos and wildlife habitat to help the survival of species. Their mission statement could have been written with the Eastern bongo in mind. As they went on to say, “We need to start now while there are enough individuals to perform research on! And as long as there is enough time to thoroughly study reproduction physiology and ART so that it is readily available when we need it. We need not only to work on future banking of sperm, oocytes and embryos but to test for applications right here and now to add to the conservation breeding of endangered species.
‘USE IT, OR LOOSE IT’
ART is a new addition to the conservation toolbox! Biotechnology and captive breeding will more than ever be needed to ensure species survival. But we have to start studying species specific details now, populations are dwindling!”
Talking to these two dynamic, yet practical, hands-on ladies at length – who have worked on animals as varied as elephants, rhino, giraffe, Persian leopard and Asiatic golden cats – it appeared to me as if their approach could be copied and used to resolve the bongo problem in Kenya by starting to bank semen samples as a viable genetic resource. At the same time, necessary samples could be collected at the same time to establish the general reproductive fitness of the captive bongos being held for release i.e. blood, tissue and fecal samples. The tests on these samples to establish things such as DNA, reproductive status, hormone levels, diseases, immune competence and so on could be conducted over weeks if not days if there was urgency and, if less than 140 Eastern bongo left in the wild was not urgent then I do not know what is! But then as I have learnt in business, “Urgent things are seldom important and important things are seldom urgent!”
So what is the real problem? Africa’s age old problems of incompetence and corruption? The inability of virtually every African country to understand that its unique wildlife and wildlife habitat is a priceless renewable resource that can provide opportunities for all its peoples in perpetuity if used sustainably? Surely you would think that a country like Kenya, which depends so heavily on overseas eco-tourism, which has banned hunting, which regularly holds highly publicized ivory burns, would with its animal rightist and anti-hunting supporters recognize the importance of its iconic bongo population and, in six years, summon up the funds and enthusiasm to fence just one area for bongo?
But no. As I have sadly come to realise over the years, anti-hunters and animal rightists have big, big mouths but never back it up with concrete, on the ground funding of practical conservation initiatives. They are happy to bribe corrupt African leaders to refuse to sign legislation passed by their own legislatures to re-introduce game ranching and hunting. They are happy to threaten members of parliament that, if they re-introduce similar legislation they will fund the election campaigns of their opposition. They are happy to pay money to immoral journalists to place the claptrap THEY write about hunting in newspapers and magazines. They are happy to pay money to rent-a-crowds to protest against hunting and attend the wasteful ivory burning charades but money for conservation? Not a cent! It is beyond shameful.
Again as Lüders and Luther pointed out when discussing the main obstacles to their work on other high profile species, “There are strong politics involved and progress is dependent on the people in charge. POLITICS will KILL more SPECIES in the FUTURE than POACHING!”