Zoo Tales: Bongos More Than Drums at N.C. Zoo
To say that the North Carolina Zoo has "had its sights on" Eastern bongo antelope for a while might be politically incorrect, but that's just what's been going on.
For several years, the park's curators have been trying to add this beautiful African antelope species to their collection. That desire came to fruition when the park's first bongo arrived this spring.
Unlike the zoo's other antelope species exhibited on the 44-acre Watani Grasslands Reserve, the bongo will be exhibited in the smaller Forest Edge exhibit with the zebras, giraffes and ostriches already there.
The Bongo (Tragelaphus eurycerus isaaci) is characterized by a striking reddish-brown coat, conspicuously striped with 10 to 15 thin, white vertical lines on the torso and rump and long, slightly spiraled parallel horns. Both sexes have a crest of hair that runs the length of the back, and the legs are boldly patterned with chestnut, black, and white. Other features include large ears, a conspicuous white chevron between the eyes and two large white spots on each cheek.
Their beautifully camouflaged coloration helps them hide from predators in the wild. Both sexes have horns. Those of the male average 30-39 inches, with the female's being longer but thinner.
The Eastern bongo, also known as the mountain bongo, has an even more vibrant coat than that of its close relative, the smaller Western (or lowland) bongo. In the wild, it's found primarily in one remote region of central Kenya, although there are very small pockets of them in some of the west African countries. It's classified by the IUCN Antelope Specialist Group as endangered. Presently, there are thought to be more bongo in captivity than in the wild, but the animal's secretive nature makes it hard to know for sure.
Although the exact reasons for the decline in bongo populations are unknown, most current views agree that it's certainly caused, in part, by habitat destruction as civilization expands, putting even more pressure on the forests. Poaching and the incursion of lions, an unnatural predator for the bongo, have also been suggested.
But there's hope for the bongo. In 2006, the Association of Zoos & Aquariums -- America's leading accrediting organization of animal facilities -- named the Bongo Restoration to Mount Kenya Project to its list of the top 10 wildlife conservation success stories of the year.
Bongo are the largest and heaviest of the forest antelope. In the wild, they are typically found in the dense undergrowth of tropical jungles at altitudes of up to 12,800feet. Their preferred habitat is typically in such dense undergrowth that few Europeans or Americans observed them until the 1960s.
Like many of Africa's other ungulates (hoofed animals), bongos are usually seen in small groups made up of about six to eight females, with young, and an adult male -- or "bull." Bongos are seldom seen in herds of more than 20.
Females give birth to one calf after a gestation period of about 285 days. Calves are usually "up and running" within an hour after birth. The Jacksonville Zoo reported that a bongo calf born in 2008 was standing within 30 minutes of its birth and weighed about 43 pounds. In the wild, calves may hide for a week or more during a time when the mother visits for feedings. Both male and female calves reach maturity in about two and a half years.
Bongo are herbivores with a diet consisting mostly of grasses, flowers, leaves, twigs, cereals and thistles. Like a giraffe, a bongo has a long prehensile tongue for pulling up tough roots and for grasping twigs and tree branches. They often use their broad horns for pulling and breaking high branches.
Although the future of the wild Eastern bongo remains uncertain, a healthy captive population will certainly play a key role in the fate of this beautiful antelope and provide healthy stock that could possibly be reintroduced into the wild.
Tom Gillespie works for the public affairs office of the N.C. Zoo.
More like this story