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MOUNT KENYA, Kenya - Eighteen rare mountain antelope leapt from their shipping containers onto the slopes of Mount Kenya on Friday - the climax of an attempt begun two decades ago to save the species from extinction.
Don Hunt was an avid hunter when he came to Kenya in 1964, but became a conservationist when he saw the wildlife population was shrinking fast. Working with his friend, actor William Holden, he captured 20 mountain antelope and sent them to the United States for breeding.
On Friday, the descendants of those animals returned to Mount Kenya, a major step in Hunt's dream of returning wild bongos to the mountain he calls home.
"Today was the greatest day of my life," said Hunt, a former children's television producer from Detroit. "We've been dreaming of this for 35 years and it went off without a hitch."
The 51/2-foot-high mountain bongos seemed somewhat befuddled as they ran from the wooden boxes where they'd spent the past 40 hours. Darting into corrals, the shy animals raced into dense bush - their natural hiding place in the wild.
Hunt, 72, invited some old pals and a few journalists to witness the release, letting them stand on 4-wheel-drive vehicles to see over the black fence that keeps out predators.
The bongos will spend some time in the three corrals, adjusting to life in Africa, before being set loose in a 100-acre enclosure. The antelope came from 13 zoos and wildlife parks in the United States - including Busch Gardens and Disney's Animal Kingdom - and were encountering their natural habitat for the first time.
The bongo was once a hunting trophy, prized for its red coat with delicate white vertical stripes and handsome black face crowned by long horns. At 500-700 pounds, the animal also was a food source.
But as modern Kenya's population grew, the bongos' numbers dropped precipitously, Hunt said.
Hunt became friends with Holden while on safari. But after seeing the drop in wildlife, Hunt said, he and Holden committed themselves to conservation and founded - along with hunter Julian McKeand and Hunt's wife, Iris - the Mount Kenya Game Ranch.
"Anybody who lived here and was close to the animals, particularly the bongo, could see that the handwriting was on the wall and one day there might not be any more bongo," said Hunt, who gave up a television job in Los Angeles to live in Kenya.
"So we made a deal with the Kenyan government to capture 20 bongo and send them off to United States zoos who were going to participate in the breeding program so that there would be a safe gene pool," he said. "We didn't know what a great job the zoologists were going to do. Now, there are over 400 bongo in the United States."
Ron Surrat, a curator from the Fort Worth Zoo in Texas, is in charge of the bongo breeding program in the United States and Canada. He was waiting at Nairobi's international airport when the animals arrived and helped carry each bongo to the trucks that took them on the four-hour journey to Mount Kenya.
This shipment will hopefully be the first of many, Surrat said.
"In a perfect world, we'd like to bring over a couple of dozen every year," he said. "Funding is the major issue . . . we had to charter an aircraft to do this and that was our biggest expense, $240,000. That makes it tough."
The goal is to have a breeding pool of 100 animals that can produce 40-50 offspring a year that will grow up in the wild and can be released onto the mountain, Hunt said. He and Surrat said the zoo animals will likely spend their lives in the 100-acre breeding enclosure because they are too tame to run free.
"Right now, we can walk right up to these animals," Surrat said. "We've got to get these animals to where they don't want to be around humans and can find natural food sources before we can think about releasing them."
The 18 bongos released Friday join 17 at Hunt's ranch. Bongos also live in Kenya's Aberdares Mountains.