By Curtis Abraham
Conservationists the world over continue to bemoan the rapid loss of the world’s biodiversity. Almost monthly it seems, a new report emerges about the shocking man-made threats of deforestation, habitat destruction/habitat fragmentation, illegal hunting, mining, logging, human population growth and so forth destroying the lives and homes of the Earth’s diverse wildlife.
But occasionally field researchers make astonishing wildlife discoveries where they least expect it. This was the case in western Uganda in September when researchers from England’s Chester Zoo discovered the Lowland bongo, (Tragelaphus eurycerus eurycerus), the world’s largest forest antelope in Uganda for the first time.
The animal was sighted on the Chester Zoo’s motion-sensor camera traps in the dense lowland rainforests of the Semuliki National Park in the southwest of the country where it borders the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Semuliki spans an estimated 220 square kilometres (85 square miles) and is east Africa’s only true lowland rainforest and continuous with the vast and fabled Ituri rainforest of the DRC believed to be one of the most ancient and bio-diverse forests in Africa.
Bongos have a uniquely striking reddish-brown coat, black and white marking, white-yellow stripes and long slightly spiraled horns. Standing around 1.3m tall at the shoulder, an adult male bongo can weigh 800lb (363kg) or more. They are the only medium- to large-sized spiral-horned antelopes in which both sexes have horns. In addition, they have a complex social interaction and are traditionally found in the forests of east, central and West Africa.
The western or lowland bongos face an ongoing population decline. It is estimated that their population number is around 28,000. The IUCN Antelope Specialist Group considers the lowland bongo to be Near Threatened, mainly due to habitat loss and hunting.
“We were amazed that such a large, striking animal could go undetected for so long, but bongo are a notoriously shy and elusive species,” said Stuart Nixon of Chester Zoo’s Africa Field Programme, which carried out the study alongside the Uganda Wildlife Authority, one of the bodies that regulate wildlife conservation in Uganda.
“It could be that bongo and other species are moving between Virunga National Park in DRC and Uganda, showing just how important it is to protect the rainforests, which still connect the two countries,” he added.
Chester Zoo had undertaken the first large-scale camera-trap survey of the Semuliki National Park in Uganda recently in order to get an understanding of what type of creatures inhabit in what remains largely unexplored lowland forests in the region’s large Albertine Rift system.
In total, the survey captured over 18,000 photos yielding images of 32 species of mammals, including a number of species that had never been recorded in the park before. Other wildlife recorded included forest elephants, chimpanzees, buffalos and leopards, but also smaller, lesser-known animals such as elephant shrews, the mongoose-like cusimanse (kusimanse) and the secretive African golden cat.
Over the past decade, remote sensing cameras, or ‘camera traps’, have become popular with conservation biologists. The traps help researchers in the field to find out the abundance, diversity and distribution of wild animals in difficult terrain. For example, during the recently concluded mountain gorilla census conducted in the Virunga Mountains that straddle the Ugandan, DRC and Rwandan borders, an ongoing camera trap project, an initiative of the Tropical Ecology Assessment and Monitoring (TEAM) Network, is documenting the secret lives of Virunga’s unhabituated mountain gorilla populations.
In 2015, camera traps deployed in the western part of South Sudan by Fauna & Flora International (FFI), Bucknell University and South Sudan’s Wildlife Service, not only identified forest elephants but also a number of other species never before recorded in South Sudan or in pre-independence records, including the African golden cat, water chevrotain, red river hog and giant pangolin.
In addition, chimpanzees, leopards, four species of mongoose, spotted hyenas, yellow -backed duiker, honey badgers, monitor lizards and a healthy population of western bongo were among 37 species caught on camera during the survey of South Sudan’s Western Equatoria forests.
Almost a generation of armed conflict and civil unrest had decimated many large mammals in Uganda. These were the days when the country’s national parks were littered with elephant carcasses, poachers’ camps and meat-drying racks, and poachers were better armed and equipped than the rangers. Between 1979 and 1994 the country witnessed massive declines in populations of elephants and large ungulates. There was also encroachment and degradation of wildlife reserves by civilians and security forces.
Chester Zoo’s Africa Field Programme covers the savannahs of Kenya, home to the Critically Endangered black rhino, and the dense montane forests of Nigeria, home to the Endangered Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee. The program, through various projects and collaborations, aims to lessen the negative and detrimental effects of rising human populations, the poverty that continue to plague these increasing masses and unsustainable development on Africa’s wildlife species and their shrinking habitats.
Chester Zoo is also supporting research on mountain bongo (Tragelaphus eurycerus eurycerus) in Kenya through the work of Conservation Scholar and PhD student Tommy Sandri of Manchester Metropolitan University. Sandri is currently investigating the impact that habitat change has on the small and fragmented bongo populations that remain in the Kenyan highlands that number just a few dozen individuals.
In addition, Sandri is also studying the genetic diversity of mountain bongo populations held in the world’s zoos in order to explore a potential reintroduction strategy for this highly endangered species.
Scientists are still investigating the evolutionary/genetic relationship between the lowland and mountain bongo populations of the east and central Africa regions. The discovery of the Uganda bongos will only further aid in this scientific exploration.
Curtis Abraham is a freelance writer from Queens, New York, currently based in Uganda. He writes on science, development, the environment, bio-medicine and health and Africa’s social and cultural history.