The world's largest forest antelope faces almost certain extinction in the wild in as few as 14 years if current population trends continue, according to a statement by the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).

Just 103 critically endangered mountain bongos (Tragelaphus eurycerus isaaci) remain in Kenya, the last country where the animals exist in the wild. They live in four scattered and isolated groups, the largest of which numbers 50 individuals. The KWS called the species "possibly the most endangered land mammal south of the Sahara."

The mountain bongo began its decline in the 1890s when ranchers brought rinderpest-infected cattle to the region. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), mountain bongos in the early 1900s suffered multiple epidemics of rinderpest, a deadly disease that dramatically reduced their population.

Today, rinderpest is effectively extinct (a milestone the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations hopes to officially confirm at a conference this May), but that comes too late to help the mountain bongo. The species still faces poachers and habitat loss as well as other diseases and a genetic bottleneck caused by their too-small breeding population.

KWS and the IUCN's Antelope Specialist Group have launched an initiative to provide enhanced surveillance and security for the remaining wild mountain bongos, and are working on a conservation strategy for the species.

Aside from the wild population, another 500 mountain bongos live in zoos around the world. In 2004 18 of the animals were relocated to Kenya to create a captive breeding program, which now numbers 68 bongos, but none will be released into the wild until they can be adequately protected from poachers. A DNA analysis of both the captive and wild animals is also planned, to make sure any bongos released will benefit the genetics of the wild populations.

KWS has issued an appeal to Kenyans to voluntarily preserve forest ecosystems until further conservation plans are in place.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia, public domain