After working with bongo for most of her keeper career, Nikole Edmunds, Nashville Zoo Hoofstock Keeper, traveled to Africa to work with them in the wild.
Edmunds is the first international volunteer to ever work with the Bongo Surveillance Project, BSP, the only organization in Kenya specifically monitoring the critically endangered Mountain or “Eastern” Bongo in the wild. The BSP’s mission is to educate the public, specifically local Kenyans, about how to protect bongos, as well as conduct field research to better understand these elusive creatures.
Edmunds worked on the educational side of the program, visiting four out of the 55 schools that are part of the BSP’s reach. At each school, she was responsible for presenting at their wildlife club meetings. Meetings with the BSP happen twice per semester and teach the students all about bongos, as well as overall conservation, but students meet weekly with their designated wildlife patron at their school.
Students are required to actively participate in conservation by learning how to plant and harvest trees. These trees are planted in a miniature forest on school grounds.
“They are responsible for caring for that tree, so much so that during the dry season they have to bring water from home to water their tree,” Edmunds said. “Some schools have run out of room to plant the trees, so they have to plant them at home or in their communities. The concept is to leave a living legacy with the idea that we can rebuild the forest where we can create an environment where bongo will thrive.”
Bongos have gone through a drastic decline, with inferential data suggesting that there may be less than 100 individuals left in the wild. The BSP has identified small isolated groups of mountain bongo still surviving in the wild within four highland forests of Kenya, including Aberdare Forest, Mt Kenya Forest, Eburu Forest and Mau Forest.
These last groups are in need of immediate protection because they are on the verge of extinction mainly due to poaching, disease, habitat loss, and forest degradation.
“Most of the people I spoke with throughout the trip had never heard of a bongo before, even though this is the only place they can be found natively,” Edmunds said. “That just shows how rare these beautiful creatures are in the wild.”
Most of the four forests the bongo are currently living in are completely or partially fenced in, which limits the amount of poaching, but still the numbers are low.
“Even the trackers who are out studying the bongo rarely get to see them,” Edmunds said. “Most of their knowledge comes from photos taken by camera traps.”
All of the bongo in the United States, including the three at Nashville Zoo, originate from the Aberdare National Forest.
“There is a repatriation project in process and in 2004, 18 bongo were moved back to Kenya from the United States,” Edmunds said. “Now there are about 60 in Kenya from that project. Those are not counted as part of the 100 in the wild since they are currently at Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy, but they plan on introducing them back in the wild eventually.”
Currently, BSP has installed 60 new cameras in the Eburu Forest, the smallest out of the five forests where bongos reside. Installing these cameras would give researchers a better understanding of how many bongo their actually are and how they interact with other species in the forest.
Edmunds was deemed BSP’s “bongo expert” while there and has been invited back to evaluate the bongo at the Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy.
“They’re critically endangered and they’re a species most people aren’t familiar with,” Edmunds said. “I just want to spread the news about these animals and my appreciation for them.”
Nashville Zoo keepers take pride in being able to assist with conservation beyond the call of their daily tasks. Edmunds along with fellow zookeepers were able to raise $10,000 to be directly donated to Bongo Surveillance Project through the Conservation lounge at this years Brew at the Zoo.