Bwindi Impenetrable Forest Gorillas
Arguably one of the oldest “last Edens” on the African continent, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda is a tantalizing glimpse of how the world once was. It contains some of the most pristine virgin forests remaining on the African continent. It is home to the endangered mountain gorillas, other primates, forest elephants, and hundreds of different bird species, reptiles, and other 120 mammal species. Heavily protected within this stunning “impenetrable” rainforest are about half of the last few mountain gorillas in the world. Feeding on healthy 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, the Bwindi forest is one of Africa’s most ancient rainforests believed to be a refuge for species during glaciations in the Pleistocene epoch. 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 East Africa’s most significant areas, including Afromontane lowland forest extending to well within the montane forest belt. Located on the Albertine Rift Valley’s eastern edge, Bwindi sits on the southwestern edge of Uganda’s border with DR Congo, with a small part on the Congo side.
The Forest is believed to be a Pleistocene refugium Favourable area where species have survived periods of glaciation during the Pleistocene Era (2.5 million years ago). The park is a biodiversity hotspot with possibly the most important tree species for East Africa’s altitude.
It is also host to a rich fauna, including several 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 from mountain gorilla tracking and other ecotourism may be the only hope for this unique UNESCO site’s future conservation.
Bwindi’s diverse habitats range from 1,160 to 2,706 m (3,805 to 8,879 ft) in altitude. The habitats are located at the intersection of the Albertine, Congo Basin, and the Eastern Africa ecological zones. Its potential role as a Pleistocene refugium makes Bwindi Impenetrable National Park the most crucial area in Uganda. Many wildlife species find it a comfortable home due to an exceptional diversity that includes many Albertine Rift endemics.
This forest is believed to be a mere remnant of a vast forest that once covered much of western Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The park has the highest diversity of tree species (over 200 species including ten endemics) and ferns (some 104 species) in East Africa, and maybe the most critical 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 critically endangered mountain gorilla population (more than 400). 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 long pedicellate.
The forest has a dense network of streams flowing to many rivers, including; Ivi, Munyaga, Ihihizo, Ishasha, and Ntengyere rivers, flowing into Lake Edward, Lakes Mutanda, and Bunyonyi.
Best Time to Visit Bwindi
Bwindi has a tropical climate, with the environment 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 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 permits in advance is advised. The low season is in March, April, May, October, and November, but this time, heavy rainfall makes trails hard to use, but the permits are discounted. You may track gorillas for long, and the rain 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 critically endangered mountain gorilla population (more than 470). 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 make the forest their home, 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 birdwatcher’s 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 in Uganda.
The area also qualifies for the Afro-tropical-highland biome bird species with 68 of the total 86. The Lake Victoria biome has 4 of the 12 species.
Birds are very abundant and very easy to spot; several species connect in mixed feeding flocks that are active all through the day. The main birding trails where birders can catch sight of these fantastic creatures are the Bamboo Zone, the Mubwindi Swamp trail in Ruhija, and the Waterfall trail in Buhoma.
Some 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 gorilla population is approximately 400 individuals, half of the world’s critically endangered mountain gorillas, with more than 100 habituated. Tourists wishing to track gorillas must first obtain a permit.
UWA and research authorities have habituated selected gorilla families to human presence. They control the number of visitors 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.
Twelve 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) 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. 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.
Eight families and two under habituation (48 permits and four 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, ten members of this group split from the biggest group, the 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 the Nkuringo region.
- Nkuringo Group 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 incredibly peaceful. There is always potential for danger when you are close to wildlife, but you can limit the risks significantly 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.
- Burry any human waste 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 guide’s example – 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. It’s one of the most secure forest reserves in the country, with little or no incidents in a long time. The list of people you will encounter on one of your hikes in the park includes armed game rangers in camouflage uniforms, UWA guides and staff, camps and tour operators, and 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 the government to be more vigilant and enforced more security at the border. Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is now a safe and stable adventure destination with well-trained armed rangers and guides accompanying every tour group.
Medical practitioners recommend that you 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. However, a lone traveler can book the Bwindi gorilla permit from Uganda Wildlife Authority offices in Kampala (the only authority mandated to issue the gorilla permits) or check for availability in the information centers in Kisoro or Buhoma. Ensure 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, mainly permits for the high season (July- December) when most travelers flock to 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 for foreign non-residents. Foreign residents pay US$600 per person, and East African residents pay UGX 250,000 per person. Gorilla habituation experience in Uganda costs US$1,500 per person.
Discounted Gorilla Permits for 2021
- East African Community citizen gorilla tracking permits reduced from UGX 250,000 to UGX 150,000
- Foreign Resident gorilla tracking permits reduced from USD 600 to USD 300
- Foreign Non Resident gorilla tracking permit reduced from USD 700 to USD 400
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 a wild gorilla family that is semi-habituated.
No one can accurately determine the amount of time spent tracking a gorilla family in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. It mostly 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 hitting the jungle floor.
What to Pack for Gorilla Tracking Safari
When packing for your all-inclusive Uganda safari, consider how the weather will influence your choice. 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 essential things to pack for hiking in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.
- The gorilla trekking permit
- Pack a decent rain jacket
- Long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, and long 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 Pygmy Experience
The indigenous Batwa pygmies, evicted from the forest to protect the endangered gorilla, showcase an enacted cultural show in a small forest pocket. A Guide will escort you 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 first people’s eyes, the Batwa Pygmy. They will describe their old way of life as hunter and gatherers, including honey gathering, basket weaving, cave-dwelling, and traditional dancing.
Bwindi Impenetrable forest is biologically rich and essential for conserving the Afromontane fauna, especially species endemic to the western rift valley’s mountains. You will marvel at the variety of 200 tree species. The rainforest jungle offers excellent bird watching for hikers that take the Buniga forest walk from Nkuringo to Buhoma.
You can walk around the rural community that lives around the forest’s border and understands 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.