Editor Pete Carr talks to a French specialist professional hunter who caters for clients that seek an extra special safari experience in pursuit of the beautiful bongo
Professional hunter Christophe Morio tells me that although he is passionate about hunting the full range of game species found on the African continent, the one that interests him the most is the bongo. This is the species that takes him to the Central African Republic, a superb safari destination and the best place to pursue this iconic African antelope.
So, Christophe, tell me about your first encounter with the bongo.
My first sight was a fleeting one. It was late 2005 in the Ouadda region along the Boungou River in northeastern Central African Republic (CAR). We had found numerous bongo tracks, both near the various salt licks and in the heart of the bako
s (bako is a Sango word for forest, but the French professional hunters use it to describe a finger of rainforest on either side of a watercourse).
Accompanied by a hunting friend of mine and his wife, we chose the tracks of a big bull and followed them relentlessly for five days before we caught a glimpse of the bongo in a small clearing. My friend missed the bongo, but this brief encounter only served to increase my curiosity about this magical and mystical antelope. My eagerness to see and learn more about this amazing animal soon became an imperative. More than anything I wanted to outwit this quarry.
And since the first encounter?
I had to wait until November 2006, at the beginning of the dry season, to finally satisfy my thirst for the bangana, as they are called in the local Banda language. At the time, I was busy building tree stands overlooking various salt licks in the hunting concession at the start of the hunting season. By the way, salt licks are very good places to find out which animals are frequenting the neighborhood. During my construction operations at the different salt licks, I saw a multiple of different animal tracks – central African savannah buffalo, red-flanked duiker, harnessed bushbuck, giant forest hog and then to my absolute delight, bongo.
It was also during my work there that I had my two real encounters with this majestic antelope, first with a herd of six animals and the second with a lone bull, all of which I immortalised on film.
When was your first successful hunt, and when is the best time to hunt them?
In March 2007, I had the good fortune to hunt with Peter Flack from South Africa. He shot a fantastic, old – no ancient – bull at the salt lick called Batou in the north of CAR. And what a bongo. The trophy horns measured over 36in, making it the new world record according to Rowland Ward’s Records of Big Game.
Soon after this one of my clients shot another superb bongo bull, the horns of which measured just over 34in. After taking photographs and skinning this bull, we went back to the tree stand overlooking the salt lick and found a herd of 19 bongo waiting for us. I went crazy and ‘machine-gunned’ them with my camera. Without doubt, the entire morning remains one of my greatest memories.
Since then, my clients have shot many bongo and I have photographed literally hundreds of them. From my notes, it is clear that the best times to see these antelopes are in January until mid-February and in April, respectively, when the salt licks are flooded.
Apart from CAR, which countries have bongo habitat?
The geographical range of the bongo extends from Sierra Leone through the Congo to Kenya’s forests in the Aberdare mountain range. There, the antelope has a darker colour than its cousins in western and central Africa. The strange thing, however, is that in north CAR where I hunt, bongo is not listed as being present in any of the books. Despite this relatively widespread distribution, only two African countries allow Bongo hunting under licence: Cameroon and CAR.
What is the bongo’s preferred habitat?
The bongo is primarily a forest species. It enjoys dense cover and the gallery forests along rivers where he can find food and tranquillity. In the dry season, he only rarely leaves these havens of peace. On the other hand, during the rainy season when the grass is high, he does not hesitate to visit and spend time in the savannah areas bordering the rain forests.
What can you tell about the habits of this secretive antelope?
It is a gregarious and non-territorial animal that is never found too far from a salt lick. Its senses of smell, hearing and sight are highly developed. Herds consist of five to 25 animals, usually with one mature bull and one or two younger bulls within a matriarchal structure. Old bulls tend to be solitary.
Bongo are most active during twilight hours and at night, but move around during the day when it rains. Usually the antelopes spend the day ruminating in thick cover. They are shy, suspicious and furtive by nature. They have a dorsal crest, which they raise when roused, and have a good turn of speed. When startled they can run away at a full gallop, muzzles high and horns stretched out on either side of the neck. In groups they appear less nervous and can be aggressive towards one another, probably to establish their rank.
Bongo produce several different sounds according to their mood. They grunt, make mooing noises and, like bushbuck, sitatunga and kudu, bark as well. They are selective grazers but seem to prefer plants with high protein content. They consume leaves, young shoots, bark, flowers, fruit and roots and use their horns as implements to dig or break branches. The mineral salts they find among the ashes of burnt trees or at the salt licks are an important part of their diet.
How do you hunt bongo in CAR?
Depending on whether it is wet or dry, I use different hunting methods, such as tracking, gentle flushing or still hunting from strategically located tree stands. This latter method produces excellent results and, although it is not the method I prefer, it does allow for careful assessment and selection of animals.
What constitutes a good bongo?
First, let me say that the track of a large bongo bull is, on average, 3.5-4in wide. This provides a sound basis for making a decision whether or not to track the animal. Also, the hunter needs to be aware that the bongo horns grow rapidly. They can reach 25.5in in length by the age of three. A good bull is one whose horns reach 27.5in in length, and a big one has horns that measure at least 31.5in.
In the heat of the moment it is rare to find time to examine the shape of the horns, but the best for me are those whose horns flare outwards and have a lyre shape. When a bongo bull has a big body and a thick neck with wide, flaring horns in a nice amber-brown colour, which end in white tips, it is a good trophy and certainly a mature or old bull.
How are bongo faring in CAR today?
Despite frequent poaching with both shotguns and snares, the species is doing well in all the central African hunting areas where it can be found. Most safari outfitters have seen an increase in their quotas and results. My own explanation for this, and it is only my opinion, is that this has to do with the extermination of the elephants in the region by Sudanese and local poachers. In the absence of elephants, the forests become thick and overgrown and provide the necessary tranquillity for these timid antelopes.
Secondly, I think the safari outfitters have also taken note of this increase in bongo numbers and have paid special attention to them by strengthening their anti-poaching efforts and preventing illegal diamond mining in their concessions. Furthermore, they have improved and increased the number of salt licks in their concessions, which help to retain the bongo in these areas. I am convinced that a 40in bongo will be taken in CAR in the not-too-distant future.
The bongo is an animal of the twilight. His beauty is a reflection of his majesty and is quite unforgettable once seen. To be able to spend time in the presence of one is always referred to as an experience of the lifetime by all those who experience it, and to hunt one successfully is without doubt an exclusive gift from the hunting gods.
For Bongo hunting in CAR, contact Christophe Morio on 00 33 6883 79067 or www.safarismorio.canalblog.com.