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Where the bongos and bantengs roam

Pygmy hippos, endangered river mammals that are diminutive versions of their enormous cousins, live in the swamps and rainforests of West Africa. The terrain, diseases such as Ebola and political instability — not to mention the pygmy hippos' elusive nature — make the species tough to study in the wild.

Determined to unlock some of their secrets, veterinarian Gabriella Flacke, a doctoral candidate at the University of Western Australia, came to Florida. "Florida has more pygmy hippos than any other place in the world, except for perhaps the wild," Flacke says. "Hopefully, there are more in the wild."

That last comment is tongue-in- cheek. Researchers peg the number of pygmy hippos in the wild at 2,000 to 5,000, though their numbers are believed to be falling.

Florida has just over 50, almost all near Arcadia at billionaire Brad Kelley's Rum Creek Ranch and his Center for Tropical Ungulates (hoofed animals) there. A Kentuckian, Kelley made his fortune in discount cigarettes, sold his company and used the cash to buy his state's storied Calumet Farms and become, according to the Land Report, the fourth-largest private landowner in the nation. The bulk of his 1.5 million acres are in Texas, but at Rum Creek he works with conservationists to preserve species.

At first blush, Kelley's effort might seem a glorified zoo for a rich guy, but Kelley's ranch — 36,874 acres in DeSoto and Charlotte counties, according to property appraisers — is doing serious and lauded work.

Efforts by Florida Trend to visit the ranch and interview Kelley, who isn't talkative to the media, were rebuffed. But the government and non-governmental organization document trail reveals a unique Florida place.

The most recent inventory of animals the ranch supplied in August to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission shows 1,275 animals representing nearly two dozen species. It has, for example, 35 white rhinos, 62 impalas, 338 Javan Bantengs (a species of wild cattle) and about 100 Eastern Bongos, a large forest-dwelling antelope facing extinction in the wild.

Kelley's is one of three places in Florida — the others are the Micanopy Zoological Preserve and the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation in Palm Beach County — that work as a consortium to preserve the species in captivity and supply animals for reintroduction into Kenya. Rare Species, which is spearheading the work, collaborates with blue-chip conservation organizations, including the Kenyabased Rhino Ark Charitable Trust and Kenya Wildlife Service, on the project. Kelley donated $100,000 to Rare Species Conservatory Foundation primarily to support the Bongo Surveillance Program.

Then there's Kelley's pygmy hippos — 48 of them.

Flacke has loved hippos since she was a child. She earned her veterinarian degree from the University of Georgia and has traveled the world studying wildlife. After researching pygmy hippos in West Africa proved problematic, she refocused on the captive population. She studies their medical issues, reproductive biology and stress hormone levels. She's gathered dung samples from 14 institutions in the U.S. and necroscopy reports from 187 institutions around the world to create a database to improve pygmy hippo health in captivity.

Rum Creek's facility "is amazing," she says. "They're doing excellent work and were extremely supportive of my work. Certainly the animals at Brad Kelley's facility all look great. They have no issues with breeding."