BWINDI NATIONAL PARK (THE IMPENETRABLE FOREST)
In 1991, generally because of its immense floral and faunal diversity and specifically because it is a last refuge for one-half of the world’s remaining Mountain Gorilla population, the impenetrable Forest was upgraded from Forest reserve status and became Bwindi National Park. A comprehensive conservation management plan including controlled visits to gorillas, conservation education, and local community revenue-sharing programs, make Bwindi a model park to watch as it develops and evolves.
Gorillas are predominantly herbivorous, feeding mainly on the leaves, stems, and roots of specific plants. Of the great apes, the gorilla shows the most stable grouping patterns. The same individuals travel together, typically, for years at a time. Groups are led by an adult male or “silverback”; however all “silverbacks” are not successful enough to ultimately gain leadership of the group. All males as they mature, develop very distinct male characteristics including an impressive silver saddle that extends across their back from shoulder to rump.
The size of a gorilla group varies from 2 to as many as 35 individuals. Average group size is about nine. In addition to a dominant silverback, the group consists of several adult females, sub adults who will most likely transfer out of their natal group upon reaching sexual maturity, juveniles, and infants.
Searching for gorillas can be likened to an adventurous game of “hide and seek” in which the guides know where they were yesterday but must find their trail again today and follow it. Finding gorillas can almost be guaranteed for those willing to hike one to four hours or more in search of them.
Each group of visitors is led by a park guide and one tracker. Porters may be hired to carry lunch, drinks, etc. and to assist anyone who may wish to return early.
The search often involves climbing down into gullies, then pulling yourself up steep hills by holding onto vines and bamboo. Even though the pace is slow, you must be in good condition to keep up; the search may take you to altitudes of 3800 to over 6500 feet (1160–1982 m) or more. While this sounds difficult, almost anyone in good physical condition, without a heart problem, can do it.
The guide looks for nests used the night before by the gorillas, and then tracks them from that spot.
Once the gorilla group has been located, the guide communicates with them by making low grunting sounds and imitates them by picking and chewing bits of foliage. Juvenile gorillas are often found playing and tend to approach within a few feet of their human guests.
Adult females are a little more cautious but may still approach within several feet of you. The dominant male, called a silverback because of the silvery-grey hair on his back, usually keeps more than 20 feet (6 m) from his human visitors.
Once located visitors have an hour to observe the gorillas.
There are now four groups of habituated gorillas to be trekked in Bwindi namely, Mubare, Habinyanja and Rushegura in Buhoma, and the Bitukura group in Ruhija. Each group has a maximum of eight trekking permits per day, giving a total of 32 permits per day. Permits must be pre-booked through the Uganda Wildlife Authority in Kampala and can be booked up to 2 years in advance.
Other activities include guided forest/waterfall hikes.
Tea and coffee are grown in the area, and the nearby tea factory welcomes visitors for guided tours. Casual walks may be taken in the locality to visit neighboring villages and to meet the friendly Bakiga, Batwa and Bafumbira tribes.
The diversity of birds in Bwindi National Park is extremely high, representing one of the forest’s avifauna in Africa. The bird list for the park currently totals 334 species, 67 non-forest-dependent species, and 182 forest-dependent species. Thirteen of these species occur nowhere else in Uganda, seven are not known to occur anywhere else in East Africa, and 17 are known for East Africa only in Bwindi and one or two other East African forests.
A total of 202 species of butterflies have been reported to occur in Bwindi National Park, and additional species, undoubtedly, occur. Eight of these species are regional endemics.