Gorilla

The Pearl of Africa: A Survey of Uganda's National Parks

Gorilla

Uganda's natural beauty has hardly escaped notice. In 1909, Sir Winston Churchill famously called it “the Pearl of Africa,” a sentiment echoed more prosaically today whenever contemporary travelers ooh and ahh over the country's diversity of people, wildlife and ecosystems.
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Uganda occupies a special geographical position, spanning the land where western and eastern Africa come together. Its rainforests are home to the famous mountain gorillas and teeming with beautiful birds, with savannas populated by big game nearby. This also explains the wide range of habitats, including woodlands, wetlands, moorlands, mountains, rivers and lakes (approximately 20% of the country is covered by water).

No wonder Lonely Planet ranked Uganda first on its Best in Travel list for 2012, the 50th anniversary of the country's independence.

It's easy to get overwhelmed by its 10 national parks, its status as one of Africa’s most popular birding destinations (with around 1,050 species – 50% of those on the continent and 11% in the world), its 18 primate species and its impressive panoply of outdoor activities. But in a country of superlatives – the world's largest free-standing volcano, the world's second-largest freshwater lake, African's highest mountain range, the headwaters of the world's longest river– how did International Expeditions choose what's essential to see on safari?

Here's a look at the primary attractions of some of Uganda's best national parks:
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Queen Elizabeth National Park

Located in the southwest about 400 km from Kampala, Queen Elizabeth National Park is Uganda's most popular conservation area. Its 1,978 square kilometers were first gazetted in 1952 as Kazinga National Park, but its name was changed two years later in honor of a visit by the British monarch.
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The park's popularity is principally due to its breathtaking biodiversity. Spread across the Albertine Rift Valley, the park offers savanna, acacia woodlands, tropical forests, fertile wetlands and lakes within its borders, providing safe haven to over 600 bird species and 95 mammals (including 10 species of primates). No wonder the QENP has been recognized by Birding International as an International Birding Area.

Two of the park's unique wildlife experiences are chimpanzee tracking in the Kyambura Gorge and sighting the unusual tree-climbing lions, which perch in the giant fig and acacia trees of the Ishasha sector. Other highlights are the two-hour boat ride along the Kazinga Channel; guided walks through the dark Maramagambo Forest; and cultural encounters with local communities, like the salt workers at the Lake Katwe evaporation pans.
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Murchison Falls National Park

The sprawling 3,840 square kilometers of Murchison Falls National Park, found 300+ kilometers northwest of Kampala, make it Uganda's largest protected natural area. It is also the oldest, originally established in 1952.

Famous as the location of Murchison Falls – the thunderous cataract where the Nile River squeezes through a six-meter gap and then plunges 43 meters – the park is also a magnet for birders and animal lovers.

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The 450 species of fowl recorded here include the rare shoebill stork and many endemics, while the 76 mammals include four of the Big Five (all but the rhinoceros, which live in special protected isolation at the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary).

Although game drives are a customary means of scouting for wildlife here, a special game cruise along the Nile is a relaxing way to take in the park’s changing landscape. The views of the water's edge and up to the falls are not to be forgotten, as is the hike from the boat landing to the falls, which are visible from below and then above.
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Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park

Although small – just 321 square kilometers – Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park is of crucial importance as home to the world's largest population of critically endangered mountain gorillas. The park contains half of the 900 or so alive today, with the remainder in the Virunga conservation area shared by Rwanda and Congo. (For more about the gorillas and the experience of visiting one of Bwindi’s 10 habituated gorilla groups, see Tracking Gorillas: The Bigger Conservation Picture.)

Preserved on the edge of the Rift Valley in southwest Uganda, Bwindi was established in 1991 as part of the conservation effort to save the mountain gorillas. Three years later, this island of remnant forest– one of Africa's richest and oldest (dating back about 25,000 years) – was recognized by UNESCO as a natural World Heritage Site.
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Beyond the gorillas, Bwindi is full of other life, including 120 species of mammals, 350 species of birds (earning it the title of the Best Birding Destination in Africa by Travel Africa magazine), 200 trees, 310 butterflies, 88 moths and 51 reptiles.

The humans of Bwindi are also notable. The indigenous Batwa people were exiled from their historic lands when the park was created. They now reside in an adjacent buffer zone, from which they lead tours that teach visitors about their age-old hunting, hut-building, honey-harvesting, agricultural and trapping practices, as well as sharing traditional music and dance.

How to Explore Uganda's National Parks

International Expeditions offers ecologically sensitive, small-group Uganda tours which feature the opportunity to track mountain gorillas and chimpanzees in five national parks, including Murchison Falls, Queen Elizabeth, Kibale, Bwindi and Lake Mburo.
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After decades of hardship under politically oppressive regimes, Uganda is finally coming back into its own and trying to right many wrongs. Tourism plays a big part in that, as one of the core sectors driving the country's socio-economic transformation.

With this in mind, remember that the Uganda Wildlife Authority, which oversees Uganda's parks, gives 20% of all park collections to communities that border the parks to develop facilities such as schools, hospitals, water infrastructure and roads. Any money spent on appreciating wildlife is also helping to improve quality of life and establish a more stable equilibrium between humans and animals.

 

As a writer, Ethan Gelber has agitated tirelessly for responsible/sustainable travel practices, a focus on keeping things local, and quality and relevance in publishing and destination marketing. He started The Travel Word blog and is co-founder of travel content curation site Outbounding.