The bongo is a large forest-living antelope characterized by a striking reddish-brown coat with 10-15 vertical white stripes. They have a thin mane running along their back. The two sub-species are the Lowland bongo (the Western bongo) and the Mountain bongo (the Eastern bongo). A bongo has white marks on its cheeks, a white stripe between its eyes and nose, with a white crescent on its chest. Its legs have black white bands and its long tail ends in a tuft. It has large ears and its tongue is long and prehensile. The horns spiral into one or one-and-half twists, with males' horns being longer with more of a twist.
Bongos are mainly to be found in the lowland forests of Zaire and West Africa to southern Sudan. There are small populations in the highland forests of Kenya and also in the Congo. They prefer areas of forest with random clearings providing fresh, green vegetation at a low level. An ideal habitat for bongos in East Africa are mass bamboo die-offs.
The bongo is highly nocturnal and seldom seen by people, being shy and elusive. They disappear almost immediately into the forest when they feel threatened. Males live a solitary life and will only meet up with other bongos for mating purposes. Females often group together for protection in herds of up to 50 females and their young. Bongos can communicate by means of a variety of calls, including moos, grunts, snorts, and bleating as warning signals or as distress calls.
The bongo is herbivorous (folivorous, graminivorous), eating plant matter only. It eats leaves, roots, grasses, and bark, choosing to feed during the night in order to keep out of the way of its many predators. It has a prehensile tongue and uses it to reach the fresh leaves which are higher up and to pull out roots.
Mating is generally between October and January. After a gestation period of about 9 months, the female gives birth to a single calf. To protect the vulnerable calves from predators, they are born within dense vegetation, where, for about a week they lie silently, their mothers returning regularly to give them milk. When they are strong enough they join a group for better protection. Calves grow fast, their horns beginning to show after about three or four months. Weaning is at 6 months but calves generally stay with the herd for longer.
Destruction, of habitat, poaching, illegal trapping, and being a food source for humans in some areas contribute to the decrease in African bongo populations. Other major threats are diseases from domestic livestock and predators such as lions and leopards. Pythons and hyenas will kill young bongo calves.
Estimates of the bongo population are limited in availability. As of 1999, the population of Lowland bongo was suggested to be around 28,000 animals, with populations in the order of a few thousand in West Africa, and tens of thousands in the Central African forest zone. Only about 60% live in protected areas. The current population estimate for the Mountain bongo is only about 100 individuals. Lowland bongo is classified by the IUCN as Near Threatened (NT) while Mountain bongo is Critically Endangered (CR). Both subspecies experience decreasing population trend.
The browsing behavior of bongos is important in stopping the vegetation of forests from becoming overgrown.