Written by Frank Zits
After the Big Five (lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, and Cape buffalo), hunting forest bongo possibly rates next, or at least high, on the list of dream safaris for most African game hunters. There are two types of African bongos, the western or lowland bongo and the mountain bongo. The western bongo is found in the dense forests of western and Central Africa, Cameroon and Republic of Kongo while the mountain bongo inhabits the forests of central Kenya.
I was fortunate enough to hunt western bongo on five trips between 2014 and 2018 in the Central African Republic (CAR) with the renowned professional hunters, Jacques LeMaux and Thomas Kolaga. I hunted in an area called Rafai, which is approximately 550 miles east of Bangui, the capital of CAR, and along the edge of the Bomu River, near the Congo border.
The challenge of hunting bongo starts with getting there. It did not help that CAR was in the middle of a civil war (still ongoing) that erupted in 2012 when the Selena, a coalition of rebel groups, accused the government of failing to abide by peace agreements, which led to the ousting of President Francois Bozize. The CAR is a beautiful country with vast forests, but has been plagued by war and poverty. The CAR was a French colony from the late 19th century until 1960 when it gained independence. French and Sango are the official languages, but there are scores of other regional and local languages and dialects. The pygmy forest people that we hunted with spoke their own ancient language as well as French. However while bongo hunting few words are spoken and most communication is made through hand gestures.
Pygmies are some of the best trackers in the world. The team consisted of seven men. The PH, two porters, three trackers and the client. The men will stay on a specific set of tracks until the track is lost, at which point the trackers would fan out in different directions based on intuition. As soon as one of them picks up the trail, they would tap on their leg and the others would fall into line behind the lead tracker. The Pygmy trackers are accompanied by their hunting dogs. The dogs are on leash until the bongo is located, startled, and breaks cover. These dogs are bred for hunting bongo, and also for hunting monkeys and duikers in the off season for food.
Bongo are the second-largest (after eland) and one of the most colorful among African antelopes. The western bongo has a deep orange color with vertical white body stripes. It has a black face with a white chevron nose marking. They are primarily nocturnal and depending on the location can weigh 600 pounds. The bongo in the CAR are larger bodied due to the many grass areas between the Boma forests. A bongo can live more than 20 years. As they get older their horns not only grow longer, but they start to splay to the outside as seen in the some of these photos. Typically, your PH will be looking for an older solitary male. The tracking process could take 2-5 hours. If the male is joined by females or sub-adults, the PH will call the hunt off and start again the next day on a new track. If we continued it would be likely the dogs would pursue the younger or weaker, rather than the trophy male.
Bongo live in the dense vegetation of the rain forest. The rays of light filter through the forest canopy. You learn to move slowly and carefully, using pruning shears to snip small vines as you go. You have to move slowly because many times animals are very close. When tracking bongo in the deep forest, you look for tracks near saline’s or mineral springs. The Pygmy people are wonderful to work with. Their sixth sense, vision and hearing is incredible. They don’t miss anything. Once, one of our trackers was pointing to one of the thousands of towering trees that make up the forest canopy. He explained that there was a snake going into a hole looking for bird eggs. I had to use my binoculars to see it. It was forty feet up in a tree and eighty yards away! You learn to trust the Pygmy’s instinct as they are walking ahead of you.
Hunters always take photos of their trophies in the field, but for taxidermy reasons, I always take additional detailed reference photos and I encourage my clients to do the same. It is important to photograph each side of the animal’s face, including the top and bottom. When I mount an animal, I refer back to the photos for the specific characteristics of the animal. These references help us with the bone structure, muscles, and veining to accurately depict the original animal. It is also helpful to have pictures of the animal’s neck and overall body proportions.
As I noted, bongos are known for their brilliant dark orange color with vertical stripes. There is a beautiful contrast between these colors and the green vegetation. Often they are mounted in an alert position to show off the length of their horns. However, in the forest, you will generally see bongos with their heads lowered and their horns laid back. They do this so that they can run through the thick vegetation with ease.
When we build the habitats or dioramas around mounts, whether it be for a typical client’s trophy room or for larger installations, like Johnny Morris’s of Wildlife Museum in Springfield, Missouri. I frequently look back to my photographic references and notes for inspiration. Johnny Morris’s museum has many different African displays and environments in which we were very fortunate to work closely with him, his designers and fabricators on. We mounted over 160 life size African mammals and birds.
Left: Frank with bongo no2 33″.
Right: Large bongo mount at convention.
Central Africa Season 2014.
Detail of light reflection on water in forest.
While I am on these expeditions, I photograph trees, the texture of the bark, the leaves, what the trees look like from a distance and also how the light shines through the forest canopy. A good mural painter can paint the way the light comes through the forest at a certain time of day. As an observer you are able to tell whether it is morning or evening light. It is great when you see this accurately depicted.
Water clear resins are use d to duplicate the springs or streams in the forest and reflections of light on the water. When I worked on the museum project, I worked with two of the top muralists in North America, the Wolken brothers, Adam and Aaron, from Springfield, Missouri. They spent seven years researching, designing, and painting murals for the museum with great attention to detail in their painting of landscapes, skies, trees, vegetation, as well as other animals. Many of their murals captured a specific time of year and direction of light in the forest. Their work is on par with the murals in the Museum of Natural History.
I have been fortunate to hunt many parts of Africa. Despite it’s challenges, bongo hunting is at the top of my list. A bongo hunt is like no other African hunt, and should you find yourself planning one of these trips you won’t be disappointed.