The Bongo of a Lifetime in the Congo
A soggy jungle hunt ends with the animal of a lifetime
Hard rain had pounded down for much of the day before, slacking off about dark. This is as good as it gets because forest animals are most active just after a rain. It isn’t just that all tracks are fresh or that the forest floor is quieter. I like to think a good rain washes away all dust and scent and holds back the tropical heat, at least for a few hours.
You can’t count on weather, you can only play the averages. That’s why Jason Hornady and I were in the Congo in late May, the beginning of the rainy season. Too much rain and roads become impassable, and the heavy rains should be weeks away. Sometimes the rains come late. On my first bongo hunt, in Central African Republic (C.A.R.) in the ’90s, also in May, we didn’t get a drop of rain the last two weeks. We also didn’t get a bongo. The motto in the forest is: “No rain, no bongo.”
This time we hit it right. The clouds built up through brutally hot mornings, and it rained like clockwork every couple of days. As I said, this last had been a hard rain. We made our way to a small salt lick, which was really just a muddy hole in a small cabin-sized clearing. Something had, literally, stomped a mudhole in the mudhole and had left clear tracks on the edges. Our pygmies got excited, and then everybody got excited.
The tracks were the deep, wide, slightly heart-shaped tracks of a big bongo bull. It was barely sunrise, so the tracks were fresh. We gathered rifles and gear, and Christophe Morio of Congo Forest Safaris voiced the unspoken: “This could be that big bull.”
There are seven African spiral-horned antelope of genus Tragelaphus. As hunters, we add the common and giant eland for a total of nine; the much larger elands are of genus Taurotragus. The bongo, species T. eurycerus, takes its name from the Kele language of Gabon. With weight exceeding 800 pounds, it is the largest antelope after the eland. It’s one of the world’s most colorful animals ranging from almost mahogany to bright orange, with 10 to 15 bright white side stripes and a prominent white nose chevron. Horns are thick and gently spiraled, often with polished ivory tips.
The secretive bongo is the great prize of the African forest. It is extremely elusive but fairly common in much of its range. There are three separate bongo populations. The eastern or Kenya bongo is confined to higher elevations on Mount Kenya and the Aberdares. Slightly smaller and more orange, the western bongo picks up in southwestern Sudan and continues through both Congos, southern C.A.R. and Cameroon, and into Gabon. Northwest of Gabon, the forest takes an odd break at the Dahomey Gap—and so does the bongo. Off to the west, the forest and the bongo start again in Ghana. Although scarce and smaller in West Africa, bongo are found from Ghana west to Guinea.
Bongo are on license in Liberia, but none have been taken recently. The eastern bongo has not been hunted since Kenya closed, so the best opportunities today are Cameroon, C.A.R., and Republic of the Congo (Brazzaville).
Modern Bongo Hunting
Bongo safaris are legendary for being uncomfortable, physically challenging, and not very successful. The first two are accurate—sort of. Today most bongo hunting is done in genuine climax forest. The forest is a difficult climate: hot, muggy, and thick. You are constantly bending and stooping to maneuver through vines. The pygmy guides, no taller than five feet, trot along the trails, but a six-footer is in trouble. But you are walking slowly, and in the forest you’re always in shade. Although supplies and logistics are the stuff of nightmares, camps are usually pretty good, as is camp fare. This is not the region of five-star lodges, but the outfitters do a great job.
The hunting is hard, but bongo hunting today is routinely successful. There are three options: tracking, tracking with dogs, and waiting over salt licks from elevated machans. Some folks say the “pure” method is tracking without dogs. I have hunted bongo without dogs. It is more difficult, but the big problem is that the best you can hope for is to follow tracks and shoot at a patch of red hide. There is almost no opportunity to see the horns to make a proper judgment.
Then add in the pygmies and their dogs. There are no wild canines in the forest, so a bongo’s reaction to the dogs is inconsistent. You follow bull tracks, and when the pygmies feel they are close, they release the dogs. Some bongo ignore the dogs and walk away. Others charge immediately. The desired result is that a bongo stops to fight the dogs, which allows hunters to get close for a look. This method is not as “sporting” as pure tracking, but I think it is more ethical, because it allows you to see the horns and make a proper decision.
Hunting from machans can be productive, but it takes a lot of patience, sometimes over days and nights. It’s a good option for hunters lacking the mobility to track and is often used in the dry season. Warren Page, longtime shooting editor at Field & Stream, is the only other outdoor writer who has taken all nine of the spiral horns; his bongo was taken from a machan. To give credit where credit is due, his story was also titled “Bongo in the Congo.”
Or Is It “Zongo?”
I’ve done a dozen forest safaris, and I’d taken two bongo: one in C.A.R. and another in Cameroon—that’s plenty. Problem is I like the African forest. I didn’t need another bongo, but I wanted a dwarf forest buffalo, and I wanted to hunt the Congo.
Perhaps you recall that the company that bears Jason Hornady’s last name had a line of “Zombie Max” with hilarious packaging. My wife, Donna, and I, Steve and Jill Hornady, and my stepson Jim had an impromptu dinner at a SHOT Show. Jim and Steve are zombie freaks, have watched every movie, can recite the scripts, and know every preventative measure. Somebody, possibly me, suggested that somebody else, possibly Steve, didn’t have a hair on his…never mind…if he didn’t do a line of anti-zombie ammo. We finished the evening with all the loads preserved on a napkin. Done.
Three days later my cell phone rang. It was Jason Hornady. “Boddington, what have you done? You have to talk my dad out of this crazy zombie stuff. We’ll be the laughingstock of the industry. My children will starve.”
“Jason, have you had much luck talking Steve out of something he’s set on?”
Long silence. “Okay, it’s all on you.” (This is exactly what Steve would say.) “This will be a disaster. Let’s make a bet? What do you want to hunt, your nickel or mine?”
I gulped and thought fast. What I didn’t know was that all of my friends at Hornady—except Steve—were against the idea. I’m not a zombie freak, but now I was stuck.
“Jason, you haven’t hunted bongo.” I blurted. “I still want a dwarf buffalo. I’ll bet you a forest safari that zombie ammo sells.”
Well, Jason lost the bet, but not really because the zombie gag made a lot of money. We settled on Congo Forest Safaris with Jean-Luc Damy and Christophe Morio. Their area in northern Congo is accessible by good roads and internal flights, so no expensive charter was needed. Jason and I were a perfect match: Congo is great for bongo and is also considered “better” for dwarf buffalo. But that’s relative. There are no sure things for that animal. So we were off to hunt bongo.
Congo Forest Safaris was in their second year of operation, pioneering a huge area of unbroken forest north of the Odzala National Park. They had built a good camp, opened a few roads, and developed salines. Natural mineral licks are common throughout the forest zone and attract all manner of forest animals. Hunters add salt and make their own licks. In the main they serve as places to find tracks. Trail cameras have revolutionized much hunting, and they’ve come to the forest. Jean-Luc and his team had thousands of photos of all manner of wildlife: gorillas, elephants, chimpanzees, duikers, sitatunga, and lots of bongo. A few buffalo were in the mix, but bongo was the most common large animal, and sensibly, Jean-Luc and Christophe had developed their area first for bongo.
From the beginning, I’d had confidence in Jason getting his bongo, but a family commitment required him to cut short his hunt. As with all hunting, things can happen fast, but every day helps, and forest hunting takes time. Time to wait for rain, time to find tracks, time to become familiar with the strange forest environment, where visibility is rarely 10 yards.
Jason’s days went quickly. On his next to last day, he went one way with PH Yannick Exalto while Christophe and I went another, looking for buffalo tracks but also looking for a bongo track that Jason might follow. We agreed to meet back at camp at midday.
Late in the morning we found a huge bongo track crossing a forest road, so we marked it and hot-footed it to camp. Noon came and went, no Jason. Shortly after one, we heard distant voices, and then they rolled into camp with Jason’s bull and singing the “bongo song.”
The Toughest Buffalo
Congo Forest Safaris has been nearly 100 percent on bongo, but other forest game is a work in progress. They’ve taken a couple of huge forest sitatungas, which may be the most difficult of all, and most hunters add forest duikers. We saw bay, Peters,’ and blue duikers, and much sign of the big yellowback duiker, but Jason didn’t have time and I’d had these from previous safaris.
They have not yet taken a dwarf forest buffalo in this area. They will, there are good numbers, but their area is largely unbroken forest with few openings, where the buffalo prefer to graze. In my two weeks, we followed fresh buffalo tracks at least eight days but never caught them where a shot might be possible. Instead, we bumped them at point-blank range and heard them crash away, glimpses but no chance to pick out the bull. It was dangerous as well as difficult. We kept on; to the end I thought we might get lucky, but it didn’t happen. Off to the south the forest opens up, and that’s where the forest buffalo roam.
Jason’s commercial flight out was cancelled, so we drove to Brazzaville, passing the Odzala National Park. There, in broad daylight, adding insult to injury, we saw buffalo along the blacktop. The Congo has only been reopened for a couple of years; better areas for buffalo are not yet hunted, and bongo probably stop where the forest opens. Jean-Luc and his team will continue to develop their area. There are unreachable clearings, and areas to the south may become available. So maybe I’ll try again, but on this hunt we were in the land of big bongo.
That Big Bull!
From the start I’d made it clear that a bongo wasn’t my goal, and every possible effort was made for me to get a buffalo. But I’m a realist. Through no fault of my team, I was not in the right place for the game I desired most. I’d seen the tracks, and I’d seen the photos.
They had pictures of lots of big bongo, but they had a picture of this one distinctive bull that was huge-bodied with heavy and unusually wide horns. It’s an overstatement to say he was “frequenting” a particular saline; they picked him up only once every week or two. But on that morning after a big rain, I knew exactly what Christophe meant when said, “This could be that big bull.”
The great pygmy hunters took the spoor, so it was now down to luck. They lost it twice, found it again, and then we found fresh dung that was still warm. We’d been following less than an hour when they unleashed the dogs. Dogs are critical. They must be the right dogs, and these were well trained and experienced. They lit up within five minutes, and now we were scrambling, running and slipping in mud, sweating, and out of breath.
The fight was in a thick grove below a slight rise. The din was deafening, and there was the occasional flash of white dog. I slid in beside Christophe. I saw red movement and white stripes, and I looked carefully. This is the great advantage to hunting bongo with dogs. As the bull circled and thrust, I saw not only the horns, but also I knew, with absolute certainty, that this was that bull—not just a bongo, but the animal of a lifetime.
When the dogs cleared for a moment, I took the shot, the Aimpoint dot bright on the orange hide. Full of adrenaline,he took the 300-grain DGX and continued to fight. So I shot him again and yet again. And then we went forward to look at the most magnificent African animal I’ve ever seen.