World’s largest forest antelope discovered in Uganda

  • Chester Zoo conservationists discover the lowland bongo in Uganda for the first time
  • Camera trap surveys help confirm the presence of the species, previously unknown in the East African nation
  • Scientists hail the discovery as “a huge breakthrough”
  • Zoo’s 18,000 images also show a range of other important species including forest elephants, chimpanzees, leopards and African golden cats

Scientists from Chester Zoo have discovered the world’s largest forest antelope in Uganda for the first time.

The lowland bongo (Tragelaphus eurycerus eurycerus) was spotted on the zoo’s motion-sensor camera traps in the lowland rainforests of the Semuliki National Park in the southwest of the country where it borders the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The lowland bongo is endemic to the rainforests of Central and West Africa and is recognised for its vibrant red-brown and white striped coat and large spiralling horns. Standing around 1.3m tall at the shoulder adult male bongo can weigh over 800lbs.

Semuliki National Park is East Africa’s only true lowland rainforest and continuous with mighty Ituri rainforest of the DRC believed to be one of the most ancient and biodiverse forests in Africa.The discovery was made as part of the first large-scale camera trap survey of the 220km2 park’s mammal biodiversity.

Stuart Nixon, Chester Zoo’s Africa Field Programme Coordinator led the research in partnership with the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) with financial support from the Giraffe Conservation Foundation and the Leiden conservation Foundation, US.

He said: “We were amazed that such a large, striking animal could go undetected for so long, but bongo are a notoriously shy and elusive species. 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.

“The lowland bongo is also rare throughout the forests of western and central Africa and declining due to accelerating illegal hunting and habitat loss. Unlike the mountain bongo, there are no lowland bongo held in zoos, so any conservation actions can only focus on wild populations. As thrilled as we are with this discovery much more work is needed to learn more about this newly found species in Uganda and elsewhere across its range.”

In total, the survey captured over 18,000 pictures yielding images of 32 species of mammals – including a number of species that had never been recorded in the park before.

Amongst the animals recorded were large, charismatic species including forest elephants, chimpanzees, buffalos and leopards but also smaller, lesser-known animals such as elephant shrews, the mongoose-like cusimanse or kusimanse and the secretive African golden cat.

The Chief Warden of Kibale Conservation Area, Mr Guma Nelson, observed that the discovery of the lowland bongo, a unique antelope, in the survey underscores the importance of Semuliki National Park as a biodiversity hotspot within the Albertine Rift.

He said: “The images of the mammal species of other genera captured by cameras attest to this fact. With its proximity to the Pleistocene refugia, there are rare and endemic species yet to be discovered if more extensive surveys are done.

“We will continue to collaborate with Chester Zoo and other partners for this noble cause in the park. The large mammals, primates and the birds have all along been the main conservation assets we focus on to protect this forest in addition to ecosystem services and resources to support community livelihood.”

As well as carrying out the surveys in Uganda, Chester Zoo is also supporting research on mountain bongo in Kenya through the work of Conservation Scholar and PhD student from Manchester Metropolitan University Tommy Sandri. Tommy is 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.

Tommy is also studying the genetic diversity of mountain bongo populations held in the worlds zoo’s to inform a potential reintroduction strategy for this highly endangered species. The new Uganda discovery brings the lowland and mountain populations closer together than previously thought and Tommy’s research may shed light on the evolutionary relationship of bongos found in these regions.