Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is situated in the south-western region of Uganda, on the edge of the Albertine rift valley. The park stretches over 321 square kilometers, and rises to an altitude of 1,160m – 2,607m above sea level. Bwindi became a national park in 1991 and was declared a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) Natural World Heritage Site in 1994. Situated along the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) border, next to Virunga National Park, the park is massively dominated by the vast Bwindi Impenetrable Forest – a biologically diverse rain forest dating back to over 25000 years of existence.
The park is hailed as one of the richest floral and fauna communities in East Africa. The forests found in the park are Afromontane – a rare vegetation type on the African continent. Bwindi has a wealthy population of trees, small mammals, reptiles, birds, butterflies and moths. The park has more than 220 tree species including almost 50 percent of Uganda’s tree species, and more than 100 fern species. Among the rare tree species found in the park is the threatened brown mahogany. Also, the park has more than 1000 flowering plant species.
Bwindi has an estimated 120 mammal species, including 10 primate species – mountain gorillas, common chimpanzees, L’hoest’s monkeys, black and white colobus monkeys, vervets, red-tailed monkeys and baboons. The African elephant, giant forest hog, antelopes, African civets, striped jackals, African golden cat, and other carnivore species. The park has 350 bird species including 23 Albertine rift endemics such as; the blue-headed sunbird, and the short-tailed warbler. The African emerald cuckoo, blue and white-tailed blue flycatchers, common bulbul, red-headed bluebill, honey guide, bar-tailed trogon, Kivu ground thrush, yellow-eyed black flycatcher, and various kinds of warblers, are some of the bird species commonly spotted in the park. The Buhoma waterfall trail, the bamboo zone, Mubwindi swamp trail in Ruhija, and the areas along the main trail, are the most famous bird watching spots in the park.
Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, are the only countries in Africa where mountain gorillas are found. Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is one of the only two places in Uganda where mountain gorillas can be encountered. The other place is Mgahinga Gorilla National Park found in the Virunga mountains in south-western Uganda. Bwindi has a population of about 400 individual mountain gorillas, almost half of the world’s population of these endangered primates. Bwindi’s habituated mountain gorilla families are the park’s major tourist attraction.
Gorilla trekking is Bwindi’s major highlight, the park’s most competitive adventure. One needs a permit to allow them trek a habituated family. The park has about 12 habituated gorilla families which are found in its four major regions – Buhoma, Ruhija, Nkuringo and Rushaga. The families include; Mubare group comprised of nine members including one silverback. Mubare stands out as the oldest habituated gorilla group in Uganda. The family is found in Buhoma region, in Mubare hills, deep within the forest and was fully habituated in 1998. The family started out with 12 members, led by a dominant male silverback called ‘Ruhondeza’. A few years later, the family increased to 18 members, yet as a result of fights with other families, several members were lost including the prized ‘Ruhondeza’. For several years, the group survived with only 5 members until 2013 when 4 other members including a new silverback were added to it.
Habinyanja is the other family available for trekking. Found in Buhoma region, Habinyanja was first visited by tourists in 1999. The family has 18 members including 2 dominant male silverbacks. The name ‘Habinyanja’ was derived from the word ‘nyanja’ which means a water body, referring to a swamp in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest where the family was first sighted. The power struggles between the two male silverbacks makes the family a hub of commotion and violent drama.
Found in Buhoma region is another group called ‘Rushegura’ a family of 19 members including 1 silverback. The family begun in 2002 when one of the silverbacks in ‘Habinyanja’ broke away, with 12 members including 5 females. The name Rushegura was derived from the word ‘ebishegura’ which is used to refer to a tree species that was abundant in the home area of the family. The family is calm, wars and violent power struggles are not heard of among its members.
Bitukura is another habituated family, it is found in Ruhija region and is comprised of 14 members including 4 silverbacks. The family is named after a river where it was first sighted. It’s habituation started in July 2007 and within a period of 15 months, the group was availed for trekking. The family was easily adapted because its members were already familiar with the presence of people, they occasionally encountered UWA rangers. Bitukura had originally started out as a family of 24 but as a result of disputes among its members, some gorillas decided to leave the group and dissolve in other families.
Oruzogo is another family found in Ruhija region, it is comprised of 23 members including 1 silverback. The group is one the most recently habituated families, it was availed for trekking on 20th June 2011. Oruzogo is one of the most famous and preferred groups for trekking – its number as well as its playful and vibrant toddlers and juveniles draw lots of tourists.
Found in Nkuringo area is another habituated group – Nkuringo, a family of 19 members including 2 silverbacks. The group was named after a hill where it was first sighted. The family was officially launched in 2004 after a lengthy habituation period of 2 years. Taming its members was challenging because of their adventurous nature – they had a tendency of wondering in the surrounding communities in search for food. A trek to encounter the group is one of the most exerting hikes in Bwindi yet greatly exhilarating.
Nshongi is a family of 18 members found in Rushaga region. Launched in September 2009, the group started out with the highest number that has ever been recorded – it had 36 members including 4 male silverbacks and 7 black-backs. In spite of the presence of many possible male dominants, the group lived in harmony till July 2010 when it split and reduced to a membership of 26 individuals. In 2013, the family further split and reduced to 18 members.
Mishaya is found in Rushaga region – a family of 7 members including 1 silverback. The group was formed as a result of a silverback called Mishaya breaking away from the Nshongi family with some females. An aggressive male, Mishaya was able to gather more females from other non-habituated groups in the areas, increasing the family membership to 12 individuals. By the end of 2013 however, membership had dropped to 7 individuals.
The other habituated family is Kahungye, a group of 13 members including 3 silverbacks found in Rushaga region. The dominant silverback is called Rumansi and the other silverbacks are Rwigi and Ruhamuka. The group was availed for trekking in 2011 and yet in less than a year, it split to create a new group called Busingye. Prior to splitting the group consisted of 27 members including 3 silverbacks. Busingye is one of the most recently habituated groups found in Rushaga region.
Also found in Rushaga area is Bweza, a group of 7 members including 1 silverback. Some of the members of this group were originally among those that split from Nshongi, the group that used to be the largest habituated family in Bwindi. When silverback Mishaya broke away in July 2010 to start his own family, he left with several individuals including silverback Bweza. Toward the end of 2012 however, Bweza chose independence; he walked away with 6 members from Mishaya group. Speculations of a reunion between Bweza and Mishaya arose in 2013 but the two groups never reunited, Bweza was instead habituated and availed for trekking.
Busingye is another habituated family found in Rushaga region, it has 9 members including 1 silverback. Busingye became a family after breaking away from Kahungye group in June 2012. It is silverback Busingye who initiated the separation, he wanted to begin his own family. Though his name means peace, Busingye is an aggressive silverback known for initiating fights with other gorillas. Whenever he comes into contact with another family, he grabs at a female to add them to his group. His family consists of 3 infants, 2 adult females, others being vibrant youths.
Set apart specially for research and study is Kyaguriro, a family of 15 members found in Ruhija region. The family is not open to tourists but is reserved for researchers and conservationists who have set themselves to learn more about Bwindi’s mountain gorillas.
When to visit
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park can be visited anytime throughout the year yet the best time to visit is between the months of December – February and June – September. The rainy season is from March till May, and October until November. Light rains fall in November and December, and the dry season spells last through December – February and June – August.
Besides mountain gorilla trekking, there are several other adventures tourists can enjoy when they visit the park. They include; bird watching excursions, guided nature walks, mountain bike riding, primate walks, the Batwa trail experience, community visits and other cultural encounters. Gorilla treks are done in limited groups of 8 individuals each, and the trekking permits must be acquired early enough because they are highly demanded all year around.
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park can be accessed via road or air. Flights can be taken from Entebbe airport or Kajjansi air strip. From Entebbe airport, there are flights scheduled to Kihihi, an area close to the northern section of the park, and also flights to Kisoro which is close to the southern region of the park. Charter flights to either of the regions – Kisoro and Kihihi, are available at Kajjansi airstrip.
By road, there are several routes that can be taken to reach Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. They include; Kampala-Kabale-Kanungu-Buhoma route which follows a tarmac highway until Kabale, about 414km and then connects to a murram road through Kanungu and Kanyantorogo for about 120km to Buhoma. The journey takes over 8 hours before you can arrive at the park. The other routes include; the Kampala-Kabale-Ruhija-Buhoma route, the Kampala-Kabale-Nkuringo route, and the Kampala-Ntungamo-Rukungiri-Kihihi-Buhoma route which is regarded as the quickest and easiest route. From Kampala, the route follows a tarmac road to Rukungiri about 390km, followed by murram roads to Buhoma for about 82km. Also famous, is a route that goes through Queen Elizabeth National Park via Kihihi, passing through Ishasha region – the home of Queen Elizabeth’s noteworthy tree-climbing lions.
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