Bwindi Impenetrable Forest Gorillas
Arguably one of the oldest “last Eden” on the African continent, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda is a tantalising glimpse of how the world once was. It contains some of the most pristine virgin forest remaining on the African continent and is home to more than half of the last remaining mountain gorillas, other primates, forest elephants, and hundreds of other species of birds, reptiles, and mammals. Residing in this stunning “impenetrable” rainforest, are over 450 robust gentle gorilla giants. Feeding on nutritious roots, leaves and fruits from the park’s tree and fern species, the gorillas form a sublime backdrop amidst lush emerald green foliage and a kaleidoscopic fluttering of birds and butterflies. Dating back 25,000 years, Bwindi forest is one of Africa’s most ancient rainforest, trekking through this lush abundant thicket is a captivating experience; made all the more spectacular when you silently come upon these majestic beauties. This is a spectacularly humbling experience that you will never forget.
Discover Bwindi Impenetrable National Park
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, covering 32,092 ha (321 sq km / 124 sq mi), is one of the largest areas in East Africa which still has Afromontane lowland forest extending to well within the montane forest belt. Located on the eastern edge of the Albertine Rift Valley on the southwestern edge of Uganda (near the border of DR Congo and Rwanda) and believed to be a Pleistocene refugium Favourable area where species have survived periods of glaciation during the Pleistocene Era: 2.5 millions years ago), the park is a biodiversity hotspot with possibly the greatest number of tree species for its altitude in East Africa.
It is also host to a rich fauna including a number of endemic butterflies and one of the richest mammalian assemblages in Africa. Home to more than half of the world’s mountain gorilla population, the national park represents a conservation frontline as an isolated forest of outstanding biological richness surrounded by an agricultural landscape supporting one of the highest rural population densities in tropical Africa. Community benefits arising from the mountain gorilla tracking activity and other ecotourism may be the only hope for the future conservation of this unique UNESCO site.
Due to its diverse habitats ranging from 1,160 to 2,706 m (3,805 to 8,879 ft) in altitude, location at the intersection of the Albertine, Congo Basin and Eastern Africa ecological zones, and probable role as a Pleistocene refugium, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is the most important area in Uganda for species due to an exceptional diversity that includes many Albertine Rift endemics.
This forest is believed to be a mere remnant of a very large forest which once covered much of western Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The park has the highest diversity of tree species (over 200 species including 10 endemics) and ferns (some 104 species) in East Africa, and maybe the most important forest in Africa for montane forest butterflies with 202 species (84% of the country’s total), including eight Albertine endemics.
The forest is very significant as a home to more than half of the population (more than 400) of the critically endangered mountain gorilla. With over 347 species of forest birds recorded in the Park, at least 70 out of 78 montane forest bird species occurring in the Albertine Rift region are found in the forest, and 22 of the 36 endemics. Overall, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest hosts numerous globally threatened species including high-profile mammals such as mountain gorilla, chimpanzee, l’Hoest’s monkey and African elephant; birds such as African green broadbill, Grauer’s swamp warbler, Turner’s Eremomela, Chapin’s flycatcher and Shelley’s crimson-wing; and butterflies such as African giant swallowtail and Cream-banded swallowtail.
At an altitude of 1,190m to 2,607m, the park is dense, ecological, and biologically rich with diverse species. Located at the edge of Kigezi Highlands, the park has variations of elevation that resulted in a dense population of trees, wildlife, birds, reptiles, and butterflies. Its topography is very rugged, with narrow valleys intersected by rivers and steep hills. The park has more than 220 tree species, 1,000 flowering plant species, and more than 100 fern species including the threatened brown mahogany and Brazzeia longipedicellata.
The forest has a dense network of streams flowing to many rivers including; Ivi, Munyaga, Ihihizo, Ishasha, and Ntengyere rivers, which flow into Lake Edward, Lakes Mutanda and Bunyonyi.
Best Time to Visit Bwindi
Bwindi has a tropical climate with the climate and environment regulated by the forest. Annual mean temperature ranges from a minimum of 7 to 15 °C to a maximum of 20 to 27 °C. Its annual rainfall ranges from 1,400 to 1,900 mm. The rainy season occurs from March to April and from September to November. The park’s forest vegetation has high amounts of evapotranspiration increasing the rainfall around the region. The forest vegetation lessens soil erosion, flooding and ensures that streams continue to flow in the dry season.
Gorilla tracking in Bwindi is open for all year round, but the best times to visit are in the dry season from June to August and December to February. The forest trails are drier and therefore less slippery, photography is easier. The high season with many tourists coming in is from June to September and booking of permits in advance is adviced. The low season is in the months of March, April, May, October and November but this time there is heavy rainfall making trails hard to use but the permits are discounted at this time. You may track gorillas for long and the rainfall may interfere with taking photos. You may, however, find migratory birds at this time.
The forest is very significant as a home to more than half of the population (more than 400) of the critically endangered mountain gorilla. With over 347 species of forest birds recorded in the Park, at least 70 out of 78 montane forest bird species occurring in the Albertine Rift region are found in the forest, and 22 of the 36 endemics.
Overall, Bwindi Impenetrable Forest hosts numerous globally threatened species including high-profile mammals such as mountain gorilla, chimpanzee, l’Hoest’s monkey and African elephant; birds such as African green broadbill, Grauer’s swamp warbler, Turner’s Eremomela, Chapin’s flycatcher and Shelley’s crimson-wing; and butterflies such as African giant swallowtail and Cream-banded swallowtail.
Birding & Bird Species Found in Bwindi
Bwindi is a bird-watchers’ paradise, with 347 bird species. It is home to 24 of the total 25 Albertine Rift endemic bird species. Furthermore, Bwindi is the dwelling place for 76 of the 144 Guinea-Congo-forest biome bird species that are found in Uganda. The area also qualifies for the Afro-tropical-highland biome bird species with 68 of the total 86, as well as for the Lake Victoria-biome with 4 of the 12 species.
Birds are very abundant and very easy to spot; several species connecting in assorted feeding flocks which are active all through the day. The main birding trails where birders can catch sight of these amazing creatures are the Bamboo Zone, the Mubwindi Swamp trail in Ruhija and the Waterfall trail in Buhoma.
Some of the bird species include; Western Green Tinkerbird, African Wood Owl, Archer’s Robin-Chat, Red-throated Alethe, Fine-banded Woodpecker etc.
Gorilla Families in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest
The main attraction in Bwindi is its mountain gorillas which generates much revenue for Uganda Wildlife Authority. The population of gorillas is approximately 400 individuals, half of the world’s population of the critically endangered mountain gorillas, with more than 100 habituated. Tourists wishing to track gorillas must first obtain a permit. Selected gorillas families have been habituated to human presence, and the number of visitors is tightly controlled to prevent risks to the gorillas and degradation of the habitat. The gorillas seldom react to tourists. There are strict rules for tourists to minimize the risk of diseases passing from them to the gorillas. 12 habituated mountain gorilla groups are open to tourism in four different sectors of Buhoma, Ruhija, Rushaga and the Nkuringo all under the management of Uganda Wildlife Authority.
- Mubare group – named after the Mubare hills. This was the first group habituated in 1991 and received its first tracking visitors in 1993.
- Habinyanja group – This was habituated in 1997 and received tracking visitors in 1999.
- Rushegura group – This was habituated in 2000 and received tourists in 2002. It was split from the larger Habinyanja group. These gorilla families crisscross each other’s territories and co-exist peacefully.
- Bitukura group- habituated in 2008
- Oruzogo – habituated in 2011.
8 families and 2 under habituation (48 permits and 4 habituation permits issued per day)
- Nshongi group- This is the biggest habituated group in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest with 25 members.
- Mishaya group – following a family dispute, 10 members of this group split from the biggest group Nshongi group.
- Busingye group – let by Rumanzi silverback, from Kahungye family, with 10 Members
- Bweeza group – habituated in 2011.
- Kahungye – reviewed as one of the best to track in this region, with 12 Members
- Bikingi Gorilla family – habituate din 2012 with 18 members
- Rwigi Gorilla Family – newly available for tracking and a break away from Kahungye with 10 members
- Mucunguzi Gorilla family – a break away from Bweza family with 10 members
3 Habituated gorilla families with 24 permits issued per day in Nkuringo region.
- Nkuringo Group – it has 19 members and is the most challenging hikes, although worthwhile, as it is the most pleasing. Habituated in 2004.
- Bushaho Group – its original members were part of Nkuringo and now with 8 members forage around Bushaho area led by silverback Bahati.
- Christmas Group – also started by a former member and son of Nkuringo, Christmas, with 9 members.
Safety and Precaution
Mountain gorillas are, in essence, gentle giants. They show very little aggression toward each other and their overall vibe is extremely peaceful. There is always potential for danger when you are close to wildlife, but these risks can be limited greatly by exercising caution and safety measures and following park rules.
- Keep a safe distance from primates.
- Do not visit chimps when you are ill or with an infectious disease.
- Human waste must be buried 30cm deep.
- Do not use flash photography.
- Back away slowly if the animal approaches you.
- In the forest, the path or trail does not belong to you. Never block the animal’s path.
- If a gorilla charges follow the example of the guide – crouch down slowly, do not look the gorillas directly in the eyes and wait for the animals to pass.
- Don’t make any quick movements.
In our opinion, the safety in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is comparable to most parks and reserves, in that it’s one of the most secure forest reserve in the country with little or no incidents in a long time. The list of people whom you will encounter on one of your hikes in the park include armed game rangers in camouflage uniform, UWA guides and staff, camps and tour operators, as well as other tourists such as yourself.
The horrifying attack of the kidnap of 14 foreign tourists by the 150 former Rwandan Interahamwe guerrillas in 1999 led to the government to be more vigilant and enforced more security at the border. Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is now a safe and more stable adventure destination with well-trained armed rangers and guides accompanying every tour group.
It is recommended to take anti-malarial medication and apply mosquito repellent because there is a high risk of malaria transmission during the rainy season (March to May and October to December). However, mosquitoes are rarely present due to the altitude where mosquitoes don’t survive easily.
Wear long pants and long-sleeve shirts, sturdy boots to prevent bug bites and your ankle.
Booking Bwindi Gorilla Permits
Once you decide you want to have a gorilla tracking experience in the jungles of this pristine forest, your trusted travel agent, like ourselves at Nkuringo Safaris, will book and arrange for your permit considering your itinerary dates. A lone traveler, however, can book the Bwindi gorilla permit from Uganda Wildlife Authority offices in Kampala (the only authority mandated to issue the gorilla permits) or can check for availability in the information centers in Kisoro or Buhoma. Make sure you know which section of Bwindi you would like to track the gorillas (indicated on the permit which is not transferable to another section) and book your accommodation accordingly.
You are however encouraged to book permits in advance especially permits for high season (July- December) when most travellers flock these parts of Africa to catch sight of the magnificent mountain gorilla.
How much is a gorilla permit?
A gorilla permit in Uganda costs US$700 per person (2020) for foreign non residents. Foreign residents pay US$600 per person and East African residents are charged UGX 250,000 per person. Gorilla habituation experience in Uganda costs US$1,500 per person.
A gorilla permit will allow an escorted excursion into the jungle with armed rangers and a guide and you’ll be able to spend 60 minutes with a habituated mountain gorilla family once tracked and found. The gorilla habituation experience allows you 4 hours in the presence of the gorilla family being habituated.
The amount of time spend tracking the gorilla family cannot be accurately estimated but it depends on how early the gorillas woke up from their nests, where they were left by rangers the previous night, and how far they moved foraging. The Bwindi Impenetrable Forest terrain is mountainous and dump and will require some physical energy from trackers, so be physically fit before to hit the jungle floor.
What to Pack for Gorilla Tracking Safari
You must consider the weather when packing for this trip. If your trip entails a chartered flight, you may be required to pack light since baggage is limited to 10 to 20 kgs. Here’s a simple list of most important things to pack for hiking in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
- The gorilla trekking permit
- Pack a decent rain jacket
- Long pants, long sleeved shirt and longer socks
- You’ll need gardening gloves
- Trekking boots are your best friend
- Pack a tin of Insect repellent
- Snacks (keep the wrappings in your backpack, it’s illegal to eat near the gorillas and litter the pack)
- Biodegradable tissue or toilet paper
- Waterproof backpack and extra batteries
Nkuringo Safaris has a detailed list of items to pack for your gorilla safari upon confirming your booking.
Activities Around Bwindi Experiences
You will enjoy a dug-out canoe ride at Lake Mutanda on your way to or from Bwindi. This scenic lake has marvelous views of birds, Virunga ranges, papyrus swamp and community interaction.
Batwa Pigmy Experience
There is rich culture showcased by the indigenous Batwa pygmies who were evicted from the forest to protect the endangered gorilla. You will be taken to see how the Batwa used to live, upon trees! A hands-on historical and cultural demonstration will allow you to see the forest through the eyes of the first people, the Batwa Pygmy. They will describe their ancient way of life as hunter and gatherers including honey gathering, basket weaving, cave dwelling and traditional dancing.
Bwindi Impenetrable forest is biologically rich and is important for the conservation of the afromontane fauna, especially species endemic to the western rift valley’s mountains. You will marvel at the variety of 200 tree species. This can be enjoyed when also doing some bird watching or taking the Buniga forest walk through the forest from Nkuringo to Buhoma.
You can walk around the rural community who live around the border of the forest and understand their cultural aspects. They will explain their farming methods, perform cultural dances, introduce their traditional healers and blacksmiths and the women would explain their weaving skills. You can purchase arts and crafts from the local people which is an economic uplift for them. You will notice hard-working women tending to their gardens with babies on their backs. There are many community hospitals and schools that have been set up to assist the local community. These hospitals usually rely on donations from sponsors. At Nkuringo, you can visit and support community projects such as donating to a sewing machine, community hospital, primary school, water tank, and many more.