Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is the home of rare mountain gorillas, a shelter to further mammals, 220 species of butterflies, around 350 bird species including the 23 endemics, 27 species of frogs, chameleons, geckos and a home to the last group of short statured people known as ‘’pygmies’’.
Floristically, the park is among the most diverse forests in East Africa with more than 1000 flowering plant species, including 163 species of trees and 104 species of ferns. The northern sector is blessed with species of Guineo-congolian flora, including two endangered species, the brown mahogany and Brazzeia longipedicellata.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is a large primeval forest located in south-western Uganda in Kanungu District on the edge of the Albertine Rift, the western branch of the East African Rift, at elevations ranging from 1,160 to 2,607 meters. Composed of 321 square kilometers of both montane and low land forest, the park is situated along the Democratic Republic of Congo boarder next to the virunga national park and it is governed by Uganda wildlife Authority.
The name bwindi is derived from a local phrase ‘’mubwindi bwa nyinamuraki’’ which most originally referred to the mubwindi swamp in the south east of the park rather than the forest itself. The name goes back about a century ago when a family migrating found a seemingly impenetrable swamp. The parents asked the swamp spirits for guidance and they were told if only they could sacrifice their most beautiful daughter nyinamuraki the family would cross without any mishap. After two days of deliberation, the family decided that they could not turn back south so they threw the girl into the water to drown and went on their way safely. When news of the sacrifice spread, people began to avoid the swamp calling it mubwindi bwa nyinamuraki-dark place of nyinamuraki.
The forest was proclaimed impenetrable forest reserve in 1932, and in 1991 it was gazetted as a national park and named Bwindi though the swamp is still known by the more correct name of mubwindi.
The park’s existence is traced back in 1932 when it was gazetted as a forest reserve. It had two sections combined in 1942 into one forest reserve. Later in 1964, it was turned into an animal sanctuary in order to protect the mountain gorillas and with time, two other reserves were added to the forest expanding to about 321 square kilometers.
In 1991, it was declared a national park and the name Bwindi was added to make it Bwindi impenetrable forest national park. In 1993 the park became the most popular tourist destination because of the existence of mountain gorillas Mubare being the first gorilla group. Due to this, the park management now UWA bought a piece of land from the Batwa people that stretched a further 4 square kilometers and was incorporated to the park.
Bwindi impenetrable forest national park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994.
MAJOR ATTRACTIONS OF THE PARK.
The national park is a home to various plant and animal species among others which include:
Bwindi has the biggest population of mountain gorillas in the world harboring approximately 459 individuals according to the 2018 census results announced by the minister of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities, Ephraim Kamuntu showing that the global population of mountain gorillas now stands at 1,063 in Uganda, DRC and Rwanda. Uganda shares 51% of which a small number lives on the lower slopes of the volcanoes in mgahinga national park.Just like humans, gorillas are intelligent, majestic gentle giants that share over 93% of their genetic material with humans. The fur of the mountain gorillas often thicker and longer enable them to live in cold temperatures. Did you know gorillas can be identified by nose prints unique to each individual? Males at a mean weight of 195kg and upright standing height of 150cm, usually weigh as twice as the females. All gorillas feature dark brown eyes framed by a black ring around the iris. Rambling thoughts like how is a male one different from the female must be running in your head. Well, adult males are called silverbacks because a saddle of gray or silver colored hair develops on their backs with age.
12 gorilla families have been recorded from all the four sectors of the park. The sectors include:
Lets briefly talk about the gorilla families.
- Rushegure gorilla group. This group has 19 members in total lead by one silverback mwirima who is in his late 20s.
- Habinyanja gorilla group. This family started in 1997 and it has 17 members with 2 silver backs led by makara. This family is found in Buhoma
- Mubare gorilla family. This is the first group opened for tourism in 1993 starting with 18 members who reduced to 5 but currently the group has 8 members led by alpha silver back called kanyonyi.
- Bitukura gorilla family. This family is found in Ruhija sector with 14 memberswhich include 4 silver backs but the group is led by Ndahura the second youngest silver back. This family is known to be peaceful and playful.
- Oruzongo family. This group has 25 members including 2 silver backs also in Ruhija sector led by Tebirikwata one of the oldest gorillas in the family.
- Kyaguriro family group. This is one of the most treasured groups consisting of 15 members including 2 silver backs led by This family has helped in research.
- Nkuringo gorilla group. The family is the only family in nkuringo sector with 19 members including 2 silver backs.
- Mishaya gorilla family. This family can be visited in Rushaga sector and it has 12 members led by mwine the silver back.
- Nshongi gorilla family. This is the largest group in Rushaga sector with 26members..
- Kahungye family group. This group has 13members with 3silver backs led by gwigi meaning door in local words.
- Bweza gorilla group. This is the largest habituated group after nshongi located in Rushaga sector.
- Busingye gorilla family. Also located in Rushaga sector, the family is named after the silver back busingye .He is known for being aggressive and picks fights with other groups. Busingye snatches females from other family groups and he has been able to grow his family to 9 members.
GORILLA TREKKING IN BWINDI IMPENETRABLE NATIONAL PARK.
Gorilla tracking is done daily after purchasing a gorilla- permit from the Uganda Wildlife Authority. You are advised to book your permit at least 3 months prior to secure your day especially if you prefer a certain location (my dear a gorilla permit goes for $700 per day including park entrance, park rangers, and great memories in general.). Only 8 individuals from 15 years of age are permitted to visit a gorilla family per day. You need to be in good health condition otherwise you will not track because humans and Gorillas can easily pass diseases to each other. You will be briefed by your guide way before tracking and advices to stay at least 8m from the gorillas, do not use flash photography and do not look directly in the eyes of the gorilla for an extended period of time. You need to wear long sleeved pants and shirts to avoid scratches as you trek through the forest, carry a rain poncho, seasoned boots, lots of water, lunch (sometimes it takes an entire day to locate them) and finally consider hiring a potter because the terrain can be difficult.
Trekkers prefer visiting the mountain gorillas from June to September as well as from December up to February. You can visit Bwindi at any time of the year.
Please note that you only have one hour with these gorillas but trust me it’s a life time experience.
Gorilla trekking is a unique, thrilling and fulfilling experience! It is a journey leading one to appreciate the hidden treasures of Uganda thus leaving majority in wonders so please listen carefully to your ranger guide during briefing and as you trek. For example the guide will tell you the following among others
- Keep a distance of 7 meters from the gorillas.
- While trekking, always keep in your group and endeavor to maintain your voices low so that the visited gorilla family remains relaxed.
- Do not eat or drink when you’re with the gorillas.
Besides the popular gorilla trekking adventure in Bwindi, the Uganda Wildlife Authority introduced gorilla habituation since January 2014. This activity can only be done in Bwindi Forest!.
Tourists interested in participating in the experience should book a gorilla habituation permit with a registered tour operator who can also arrange for you other gorilla safaris. You can also contact Uganda Wildlife Authority’s reservations office by mail.
Gorilla habituation is done all year round in Bwindi forest as well as booking for its permits, however, early booking is recommended. A single habituation permit goes for 1,500 US dollars per person inclusive of park entry fees. Once you’ve booked your permit, you are guaranteed to spend four hours with gorillas contrary to one hour gorilla trekking encounter.
Apparently, Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) has two gorilla families under habituation process which include Bikingi and Bushaho located in Ruhija gorilla tourism sector south of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park
The number of tourists is limited to 4 who can spend four hours observing gorillas excluding time spent when searching for them. Gorillas are still wild or semi-habituated and unstable. Viewing them depends on the mood they are found in that very day; however, researchers, guides and trackers are experienced with ethics of gorilla behavior to give you a memorable gorilla habituation experience.
Normally you begin with briefing from the guides at Ruhija gorilla center, and then you’re led by rangers hike through forests. Once gorillas are located, tourists are helped and involved in the habituation process by researchers, guides and trackers. You’ll spend four hours observing, photographing and learning how gorilla behavior adopts to human presence. Upon return from the forest you’re awarded a gorilla habituation experience certificate. That sounds cool huh
Gorilla habituation involves researchers, few tourists and trackers who repeatedly train wild gorillas without any threatening or reinforcement but neutral actions directed not at altering their natural wild status including imitating their behaviors by chewing on vegetation, mimicking their vocals, walking on knuckles leading to their reduction in fear of human presence. It’s done on a daily basis and can take up to 3 years or less depending on how naturally gorillas adjust to ignoring tourists as threats and ultimately become fully habituated for normal gorilla trekking.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is one of the best birding destinations in Africa. 348 bird species have been recorded at Bwindi. including 25 restricted-range species, of which 23 are confined to the Albertine Rift and four are globally threatened: African Green Broadbill -Pseudocalyptomena graueri-Vulnerable, Grauer’s Rush Warbler -Bradypterus graueri; Endangered, Chapin’s Flycatcher -Muscicapa lendu; Vulnerable and Shelley’s Crimson-wing -Cryptospiza Shelley- Vulnerable, white bellied robin chat, frazers eagle owl are recorded nowhere else in Uganda. Indeed, both the broadbill and Short-tailed Warbler are thought to be more closely related to Asian- than to African species!
Many of the bird watching tours at bwindi forest are at Buhoma area along the forest margins and on village paths or in the Ruhija section where forest birding and swamp birding take place with knowledgeable local guides. The gem for forest birding at Ruhija is at the Mubwindi swamp where some rare Albertine endemics and lifers can be observed in their natural habitats. Some birds of Bwindi include the following.
Jameson’s Antpecker, Cassin’s Flycatcher, Ruwenzori apalis, Ansorge’s Greenbul, Klaas’s Cuckoo, White-throated Greenbul, Snowy-crowned Robin-chat,African Paradise flycatcher, Cape Wagtail, Mountain Wagtail,Yellow-fronted Canary, Archer’s Robin-chat, Dusky Twin spot, Brown-capped Weaver, Vieillot’s Black Weaver, Lühder’s Bush-shrike, Mackinnon’s Shrike, Blue Spotted wood dove, Tamboline dove.
BUTTERFLIES AND AMPHIBIANS
Bwindi hosts at least 220 butterfly species including 8 Albertine rift endemics. Three butterflies occur only in Bwindi including the Cream- banded swallowtail (Papilio leucotaenia), Graphium gudenusi and Charaxes fournierae. The threatened African giant swallowtail (Papilio antimachus) is also found in Bwindi.
MONKEYS & OTHER MAMMALS.
The park is home to about 120 mammals’ species that are rarely seen as they hide in the thickets of the dense forest. These include the large mammals and the very small mammals. The animals of Bwindi forest include; Elephants, duikers, buffaloes, golden cats, bush pigs, giant forest hogs, black-fronted Duiker, yellow-backed duiker, clawless otter, side-striped jackal, civet, numerous bats and rodents etc.
Bwindi forest is home to 11 primate species which are; black-and-white colobus monkeys, L’Hoest’s monkeys, De Brazza monkeys, Red-tailed Monkey, Blue Monkey, Potto, Demidoff’sGalago, Spectacled Galago, Baboons and Chimpanzee.
THE BATWA COMMUNITY
Derived from ‘’twa’’ a term in the Bantu languages of sub-saharan Africa to describe people who are primarily hunter-gatherers and the original habitats of the area they reside in.
The word ‘’mutwa is used to describe a single person while ‘’batwa’’ refers to a group. The batwa are believed to be the last group of short statured people known as pygmies who lived a hunter gatherer life style in bwindi forest until it was gazzeted. If you thought you were short, relax sweetheart, these guys are really short. Old men and women rise to an average of 4 feet or less in height. Are you now comfortable with your height?
The Batwa cultural experience was put in place by the displaced Batwa pygmies to educate their children and to share their amazing heritage and traditions with the world. The Experience takes place outside of the park in an old-growth forest on land that is next to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest Park. The Batwa experience begins with a nature-walk, hike through the forest seeing the forest in a new way, through the eyes of the original people of the Forest. Learn how they hunted the small animals they used for food, what things they gathered, how traps and nets were used, hence the general perception that pygmies and Batwa in particular are barbaric, wild, uncivilized, untidy, ignorant and above all else sub-human. But how true is this? Not until you visit these people.
The Batwa Experience will also show you how they lived in huts made of grass, trees, the use of tree-houses, caves. Experience the Batwa village life of old, the sharing, of living as a community, as a people, learn the things that they revered and cared for and almost lost.
Embarking on the Batwa experience exposes you to:
Hike in the forest with the help of a Batwa guide and he will provide you with the chance to see the forest and its habitats through their eyes.
See how they lived and hunted in the traditional manner. Enjoy trying out your hunting techniques as the Batwa teach you how to shoot with a bow and arrow.
Visit a traditional Batwa homestead and learn from the women how to prepare, cook and serve a meal. You will also have the opportunity to sample the prepared dishes. Talk to medicine men and learn about the medicinal properties of the forest flora.
Hear ancient legends, traditional songs and dance.
Today, the Batwa are mainly living in the districts of Kisoro, Kabale, Kanungu, Bundibugyo , Rukungiri and other places therefore they are scattered. They are some of the poorest people and with a high infant rate.
HIKING & TREKKING
Besides gorilla trekking, Bwindi offers yet another interesting activity-hiking/nature walks where tourists can get to explore several attractions in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. The hiking is normally from the north of Bwindi to the South. You can have an overnight stay and continue the next day down to Lake Mutanda where you paddle across in a wooden dugout and continue to the town of Kisoro. Aboat ride is also possible at Lake Mutanda.
The hiking time ranges from 5 to 9 hours or less. You can opt to have a Kashasha River Trail: While on this trail, be ready to spend at least 5 hours and it involves steeper inclines especially if you take the Buhoma to Nkuringo route to the end of the trail .Knowledgeable and experienced guides will answer all your questions about the wildlife and the birds, plants, flowers, ferns and trees in the area. Other trails include: kashasha river trail, mubwindi swamp trail, Bamboo trail, Muzabajiro loop trail, Ivy river trail, The Habinyanja (Railegh) trail among others.
Bwindi impenetrable forest national park will surprise you. Imagine looking at the giant gorillas, beautiful rare butterfly species, endangered bird species, the batwa, and unique medicinal tree species among others. Let’s explore kigezi the land of beautiful hills.