Last week, Zoo Atlanta’s Facebook page announced the new arrival of a baby Eastern Bongo. This is exciting (and adorable) news, but you might be asking, ‘what even is an Eastern Bongo?” mental_floss talked to Tammy Schmidt, the assistant curator of mammals at Zoo Atlanta, to find out more about these interesting creatures.
1. There are two bongo subspecies.
There are two types of bongos: the western/lowland bongo (T. eurycerus) and the eastern/mountain bongo (T. eurycerus isaaci). Eastern bongos live in the mountainous areas of Africa, such as Mount Kenya and the Aberdares, while western bongos occupy a much larger range, stretching through the central and western parts of Africa. Schmidt explains that, side-by-side, you probably wouldn't be able to tell which is which, but if you look a little closer, the “anatomy is a little different.” The eastern males are actually 100 pounds heavier than their western counterparts and have somewhat brighter fur.
2. Eastern bongos are endangered.
Western bongos are only "near threatened," but their eastern cousins are critically endangered. Mountain bongos are isolated in the mountains and suffer from dwindling numbers. There are more in captivity than in the wild, with less than 200 left roaming free in Africa.
Unfortunately, predation and growing human populations are pushing the eastern bongo to extinction. “Africa is growing just like the United States, just like Europe, with roadways, family communities, and farming,” Schmidt says. On top of deforestation and increased pollution, humans are also preying on the bongos, which provide plenty of meat.
In an effort to protect the vulnerable animals, shelters have been set up in various parts of Kenya. Facilities like Zoo Atlanta are also doing their part by participating in breeding programs.
3. They’re the largest forest antelope in Africa.
Bongos are pretty hefty animals. They can weigh anywhere from 500 to 900 pounds and grow horns that can be as long as 40 inches.
Despite their formidable size, they can be pretty skittish. They're also crepuscular animals, meaning they're mostly out grazing between dusk and early morning. The darkness helps them hide from predators.
“With that beautiful red, it’s hard to hide it, but once you get into the shade and the shadows of the forest—plus the disruption of the stripes they have—they will meld in a little better,” Schmidt explains.
4. Eastern bongos are social animals.
Finding safety in numbers, the animals are non-territorial and often gather in groups of two to fifty. “50 is being pretty generous considering I just shared that there are less than 200 in the wild. [The herds are] probably much smaller than they were historically,” Schmidt notes.
Bongo herds generally feature a group of females, juveniles, and one alpha male. Relatives of alpha males, including brothers and uncles, can also be found in the group, but they will often detach to find their own herds.
“Typically, there is going to be one alpha animal that’s managing the group and primarily breeding some of the alpha females. But the groups contain all sexes and all ages,” Schmidt says.
5. Their unusual appearance aids their lifestyle.
Both males and females have horns, but fighting is probably not their main function. The unusual horns are used for clearing brush out of the way when the animals are fleeing.
“When you look at them they’re actually twisted slightly in the middle and backwards,” Schmidt says. “So when you think about battles between males and you think about an elk or a white tailed deer that we would see here in the U.S., they’re really more of a tool that’s upright and ready for action. Whereas the bongos, when you look at them and they’re tilted back, they seem like they’re not really utilized in any kind of battle. It’s typically only going to be a male that’s going to battle another male for territory or protection of a mom and kids.”
In addition to their strange horns, the animals also sport vibrant reddish chestnut fur. The pigment comes off their fur easily and can stain trees or other brush when they walk past. This feature serves as a special calling card for other bongos in the area. Wandering males or juveniles separated from their mothers can easily find the herd by following the trail of red. Unfortunately, so can predators.