Uganda cannot compete with Kenya or Tanzania for the diversity of wildlife, but with 500 species of mammal, it has amazing diversity. You have a good chance of spotting all the classic African animals including lions, elephants, giraffes, leopards, hippos, zebras, hyenas, and up north cheetahs and ostriches. Furthermore, with the opening of the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, the Big Five are all here again.
Its main attraction, however, are mountain gorillas. Uganda is home to more than half the world’s mountain gorillas and viewing them in their natural environment is one of Uganda’s highlights. On top of this, Uganda has a good number of chimpanzees and there are several places where you can track them. With well over 1000 species recorded inside its small borders, Uganda is one of the best bird-watching destinations in the world.
The mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) is one of two subspecies of the eastern gorilla (Gorilla beringei). It is listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List, as the total population is estimated to comprise 1,064 individuals in two populations as of 2018. One population lives in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, and the other in the Virunga Mountains in three adjacent national parks, namely Uganda’s Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, and Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Gorilla tracking is one of the major draws for travelers in Uganda.
Our closest cousin, the chimpanzee, shares at least 97% of its DNA with humans. Sociable, communicative, and intelligent, one of the chimp’s most astonishing traits is its ability to use tools such as rocks for smashing nuts, empty pods for scooping water, and sticks for drawing termites from their nests. As these skills are passed from generation to generation, it has been observed that different troops are specialists in different tasks, depending on their habitat and diet.
Chimpanzee tracking is a very popular activity in Uganda with Kibale National Park, Budongo Forest Reserve in Murchison Falls National Park, Kyambura Gorge in Queen Elizabeth National Park, and Toro-Semliki the main areas.
Gorilla and Chimpanzee Habituation
When it comes to going on gorilla safaris in the wild, one common question is how it is possible to safely get mere meters from these beautiful, yet intimidating beasts that can weigh in excess of 200kg and have the strength to rip your arms out of their sockets. The simple answer lies in whether the gorilla group is habituated or not. Habituation is the process by which a group of primates is slowly exposed to human presence to the point where they regard us neutrally.
While habituated and non-habituated gorillas are both considered wild, the latter are truly wild in the sense that they are unaccustomed to human presence. So, they are either likely to flee into the forest or be downright dangerous and aggressive. Thankfully neither of these is the case when tracking gorillas in Bwindi Forest, even though you might get the odd mock charge from a grumpy silverback.
The process of habituating gorillas is a long and patient affair that takes around two to three years. It’s even longer for chimpanzees- normally around seven years before they are fully habituated. It involves spending time with a group every day and eventually winning over their trust, which is done by mimicking their behaviour: pretending to eat the same food as they do at the same time, grunting and even beating one’s chest when they do at the same time, grunting and even beating one’s chest when they do. With gorillas, the first few weeks are fraught with danger for the human habitué, with repeated charges common place.
Habituation took place well before someone had the bright idea of charging tourists US$700 a pop to see the gorillas. It’s a vital process for research that allows primatologists to observe the behavioral patterns of gorillas, chimps, golden monkeys, baboons, etc. Some hold the view that the process of habituation is unethical: subjecting the creatures to our presence each day interferes with nature by changing their behavioral patterns.
Chimpanzee tracking is a very popular activity in Uganda and there are several places where it’s possible. The main ones are Kibale Forest National Park, Kyambura Gorge in Queen Elizabeth National Park, and Budongo Forest Reserve, part of Murchison Falls National Park. Another good option is the little-known Toro-Semliki Wildlife Reserve. It has a thinner forest and so often offers the best viewing and because there is plenty of savannah around, the little guys are a little more likely to be seen walking upright. So, this is by far the cheapest place to seek out chimps.
In Uganda, there are national parks that offer the opportunity for wildlife drives which are, Queen Elizabeth, Kidepo Valley, Murchison Falls, and Lake Mburo national parks. With more mammal and bird species than any park in Uganda, Queen Elizabeth offers the greatest variety; however, Murchison Falls offers the larger mammals in greater concentration and also giraffes, which aren’t found at Queen Elizabeth.
Therefore, in both parks, you are likely to see elephants, buffaloes, hippos, bushbucks, and Kobs, however, it’s not so easy to spot predators, but with a bit of luck, you will also see lions and leopards. Also, wildlife safaris at Lake Mburo are very popular because it’s the only place in the south with zebras and eland. These animals can also be found in the isolated Kidepo Valley, which offers the chance to see cheetahs, ostriches, bat-eared foxes, and many other animals found in no other part of Uganda. Game drives are available in Toro-Semliki Wildlife Reserve too, although most people come here for chimpanzees.
During the game drives
Regardless of where you drive and what you’re seeking, taking a UWA ranger guide will almost guarantee more and better encounters. It must be stated again that Uganda doesn’t have the mammalian bounty of Kenya and Tanzania, but it also doesn’t have the masses. In Uganda, two trucks watching the same scene are a crowd.
Advantages to driving include covering more ground and getting closer to the animals, but nothing beats stalking animals on foot, and you can do this in the company of an armed ranger-guide in all parks mentioned above except Murchison Falls. Of course, bird-watching, gorilla and chimp tracking take place on foot too. Gorilla tracking is one of the major draws for travelers in Uganda.
Uganda is one of the world’s best bird-watching destinations offering 1041 species; that’s almost half the total found in all of Africa. Even non–bird-watchers will be enthralled by the diversity of beauty among Uganda’s birdlife. The good thing about bird watching is that there is no hard and fast rule about how to start. It depends on the amount of time and resources you would like to spend on it.
The country’s unique geographical position, where eastern, western, northern, and southern ranges merge, allows visitors to view the 24 Albertine rift endemics (such as African green broadbill and handsome francolin) in Semliki National Park on the same trip as dry-season eastern specials (Karamoja Apalis and red-billed oxpecker) in Kidepo Valley National Park.