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Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

Overview

As names go, there's hardly a more evocative African destination than the Impenetrable Forest of Bwindi. This swath of steep mountains covered in thick, steamy jungle is just as magnificent as it sounds. The 331-sq-km World Heritage–listed Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is one of Africa’s most ancient habitats, even surviving the last Ice Age as most of the continent's other forests disappeared. Most prominent about the park is it's 400 inhabitants, the mountain gorillas.

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park

Located in a mountainous area in southwest Uganda (East Africa), Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is commonly known for its famous inhabitant, the mountain gorilla, but this 331 square kilometers of tropical forest spread over a series of steep ridges and valleys 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 and believed to be a Pleistocene refugium, the property is a biodiversity hotspot with possibly the greatest number of tree species for its altitude in East Africa according to UNESCO. 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 almost half of the world’s mountain gorilla population, the property 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 and other ecotourism may be the only hope for the future conservation of this unique site.

As names go, there’s hardly a more evocative African destination than the Impenetrable Forest of Bwindi. This swath of steep mountains covered in thick, steamy jungle is just as magnificent as it sounds. The 331-sq-km World Heritage–listed Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is one of Africa’s most ancient habitats, even surviving the last Ice Age as most of the continent’s other forests disappeared.

 

Why Bwindi Forest is Protected

Due to its diverse habitats ranging from 1,160 to 2,706 meters in altitude, location at the intersection of the Albertine, Congo Basin and Eastern Africa ecological zones, and probable role as a Pleistocene refugium, Bwindi 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 property 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.

Bwindi Forest is very significant as a home to almost half of the population (about 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 Bwindi forest, and 22 of the 36 endemics.

Overall, Bwindi 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.

MOuntain Gorilla

Bwindi’s Mountain Gorilla

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park is home to more than half (over 500) of the world’s remaining mountain gorillas, who feed on roots, leaves and fruits from the park’s many tree and fern species.

As their name implies, mountain gorillas live in forests high in the mountains, at elevations of 8,000 to 13,000 feet. They have thicker fur, and more of it, compared to other great apes. The fur helps them to survive in a habitat where temperatures often drop below freezing. But as humans have moved more and more into the gorillas’ territory, the gorillas have been pushed farther up into the mountains for longer periods, forcing them to endure dangerous and sometimes deadly conditions.

What might have been a bleak outlook for the subspecies just a couple of decades ago has brightened in recent years due to conservation efforts. Despite ongoing civil conflict, poaching and an encroaching human population, both populations of mountain gorillas have increased in numbers. Despite years of civil unrest in the region where mountain gorillas live, conservation efforts have found success. Findings show populations in the Virunga Massif have grown to 604 individuals, up from 480 individuals in 2010. This puts the total global wild gorilla population over 1,000 individuals, according to World Wild Life.

So, Bwindi Forest is the best place in the world to see mountain gorillas up close. Having a look at these critically endangered creatures up close is an unforgettable experience, you wouldn’t wan miss it. But restricted numbers of viewing permits are issued out at a hefty price ($600) to help protect the endangered gorilla families. So make sure you book your gorilla permit months way before your planned trip to get a chance to view these cousins.

Gorilla Tracking in Bwindi

Gorilla tracking is a hiking activity into the deep jungles of the tropical forest, escorted by park rangers, breaking an cutting thickets to create a pathway tracking a family of mountain gorillas. When found, you’re allowed to spend one 60 minutes in their presence.

A genuine once-in-a-lifetime experience, hanging out with mountain gorillas is one of the most thrilling wildlife encounters in the world, and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is a prime place to see them. There are literally 88 daily permits available to track gorillas in Bwindi. Permits cost US$600 (including park entry) and are booked through the UWA office in Kampala in advance. Note you must be over 15 years of age to track the gorillas.

Gorilla Tracking trips leave from the park office nearest the group you’ll be tracking at 8.30am daily, but you’re required to report to park headquarters by 7.45am. If you are based in Kisoro or Kabale and plan on leaving early in the morning, be mindful that rainy season presents potential delays, such as landslides or getting trapped in thick mud.

With the help of trackers, chances of finding the gorillas are almost guaranteed. But mountainous and heavily forested terrain can present hikers with quite a challenge if the gorillas are a fair distance away. The path is often steep and slippery, and it can take anywhere from 30 minutes to five hours to reach them, so you’ll need to be in reasonable shape. If you think you’re going to struggle it’s strongly advised you hire a porter (US$15) who can carry your day pack and lend a hand getting up and down the hill. Walking sticks are also a very good idea, and are sometimes provided by UWA.

Once you find the gorillas, you will have a maximum of 1 hour near the gorillas. You can get up to several meters of them, but you can be instructed to move further away should the gorillas get restless. Considering the terrain, it is not always possible to get this close, so bring a camera with a zoomlens, and remember the use of flash is not allowed. While in the rainforest, you are also asked to keep your voices down.

Should you be ill or have a cold, do remember that you may be refused participation. Since gorillas are genetically so close to humans, they are susceptible to many of the human diseases.

Gorilla Permits

The gorilla permit scarcity increases as demand for them exceeds supply for most of the year in Bwindi. During the ‘low seasons’ of April to May and October to November (the rainiest months not advised to visit Bwindi), you may be able to confirm a space a week or two in advance of your trip. During the rest of the year it’s not unheard of for permits to be booked up months in advance. If nothing is available that fits your schedule, check with your safari company to hook you up with one. It’s no problem to buy already booked one, even when someone else’s name is on them. Cancellations and no-shows are rare, but you can get on the list at the park office: it’s first-come, first-served. If you haven’t prearranged a gorilla permit, this should be your number-one priority upon arrival in Kampala.

Where To Go in Bwindi

Buhoma

Nestled in the northwest corner of the park, Buhoma has three groups of gorillas: Rushegura (13 members), Mubare (11) and Habinyanza (17). As the first section of the park to open for gorilla tracking, Buhoma is by far the most developed in terms of tourist infrastructure, and with the most permits available it’s also the most popular. Gorillas are probably the most accessible here too, sometimes as little as a 30-minute trek away.

Ruhija

In the northeast of the park, Ruhija has three groups: Bitukura (14 members), Oruzogo (17) and Kyaguriri (19). There’s a good range of accommodation sprouting up here, but otherwise it’s also accessible from Kabale or Buhoma, a two-hour drive either direction.

Nkuringo

While there’s only one group in Nkuringo, a family of 11 that includes two silverbacks, it’s regarded as one of the most entertaining and relaxed of the gorilla groups. Nkuringo is spectacularly set in the southwest of the park on a ridge opposite the wall of green that is Bwindi. From various spots you can spy Lake Edward, the Rwenzoris, all of the Virungas and even Nyiragongo Volcano by Goma in the DRC.

Rushaga

Located in the southeast of the park, Rushaga has 40 permits available for its five groups including Nshongi (family of eight gorillas, the most popular), Mishaya (eight), Kahungye (Bwindi’s largest habituated group with 26 members), Busingye (nine) and Bweza (seven). This lovely thick tract of forest is also home to elephants. Another possibility in this sector is the gorilla habituation experience (per person US$1500). The permit process is the same and the difference is that visitors stay four hours with one group that is in the process of habituation.

Hiking in Bwindi

Even if you can’t afford gorilla tracking, Bwindi is a rewarding park to visit just for a chance to explore the lush virgin rainforest. Several 3 to 4 hour hikes run by the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) penetrate the Impenetrable Forest around Buhoma. The walks begin at 9am and 2.15pm and cost US$30 per person (not including your park entry fee).

The Waterfall Trail leads to a magnificent 33m waterfall on the Munyaga River, but just as impressive is the rich forest ecosystems it passes through. This is the best trail for spotting both orchids and primates. Weather permitting, the Muzabijiro Loop Trail and Rushura Hill Trail offer excellent views south to the Virunga volcanoes and the Western Rift Valley in the DRC. The latter, which is a more difficult climb, also serves up views of Lake Edward and, on an exceptionally clear day, the Rwenzoris.

A longer but much easier trek is along the River Ivi Trail, which follows the path of a planned-but-never-built road between Buhoma and Nkuringo. It’s 14km through the forest and then another 6km uphill along a road to Nkuringo village; you might be able to hitch this last part.

Explore Bwindi in Your Own Style

Take a look at these recommended Bwindi gorilla tours. If they don’t fit your style, talk to our consultants to help you customise one that brings out the best in your exploration style. We care that you have an experience like close enough o your dreams.

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