(WSVN) - They are breathtakingly beautiful, yet one of the most endangered animals in all of Africa. They are called mountain bongo, and as 7’s Kevin Ozebek shows us in tonight’s special assignment report, this species is being saved right in our backyard.
As we enter the thick brush, biologist Matthew Morris is our guide.
Kevin Ozebek: “So do you know this area like the back of your hand?”
Matthew Morris, conservation biologist: “Yeah, yeah.”
After dodging a few branches, we see their trademark stripes behind the trees.
Kevin Ozebek: “It’s right there on the trail. That is unbelievable to see that. Oh, my gosh.”
This is the mountain bongo, a big, bold and beautiful antelope native to Kenya.
But this jungle is in Loxahatchee, just west of West Palm Beach. It’s part of Florida International University’s Tropical Conservation Institute, and these baby bongo are just as curious about us as we are of them.
Matthew Morris: “We’re in their home right now. This is their space and their area, so they have to make sure we’re not up to anything.”
Kevin Ozebek: “Never would I think there would be a safari experience like this right here in our own backyard. This is incredible.”
Matthew Morris: “It’s kind of crazy that they’re back here in West Palm Beach, and that’s our biggest goal, is to get them back home.”
Although Matthew has bonded with these bongo, he’ll eventually have to say goodbye to many of them.
Next year, 25 bongo will be making the long flight from Loxahatchee to a sanctuary on the slopes of Mount Kenya.
In Africa, only about 100 mountain bongo remain in the wild.
That’s why the 62 here at FIU’s Tropical Conservation Institute are critical to saving this species.
Matthew Morris: “These guys are truly teetering, kind of, on the brink of extinction, and so that’s why what we do here, and that’s why every animal on the property is so extremely important.”
For nearly three decades now, FIU’s Paul Reillo has been leading the effort to get South Florida born bongo to Africa.
Dr. Paul Reillo, director, FIU Tropical Conservation Institute: “Obviously, bongo in Florida aren’t helping bongo in Kenya, unless there’s a channel that connects them directly, and that’s what this program does.”
The last time Paul sent a herd from here to Kenya was in 2004.
Dr. Paul Reillo: “It is extremely terrifying to open those crates and have those animals step out and think, ‘Oh, my God, what have we done? Are they going to survive?'”
Many of them did, and they produced offspring in a protected habitat.
Besides successfully raising bongo, Paul also leads FIU’s efforts to breed highly endangered primates and parrots.
It’s critical conservation work, all happening at this FIU facility off the beaten path.
Dr. Paul Reillo: “Saving species, hands-on work. It’s difficult. It’s hard. It’s expensive.”
But worth the effort when you see baby birds, marmosets.
Kevin Ozebek: “She loves the camera!”
And bongo ensuring their species sees another generation.
Dr. Paul Reillo: “For Floridians to say we’re at the center of this, we’re at the hub of biodiversity conservation, that’s a big deal.”
Kevin Ozebek: “Is there serious risk of losing the bongo if it wasn’t for this program?”
Cristina Gomes, assistant director, FIU Tropical Conservation Institute: “Absolutely. If we don’t do these types of projects to bring back the species, then most likely humans will be less willing to protect the forests, and the few remaining there will probably disappear.”
Though the bongo may now overcome decades of poaching, disease and deforestation, and it’s all thanks to hard work here in this South Florida sanctuary.
Kevin Ozebek, 7News.
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