In Photos: venture through Uganda’s riveting Bwindi Impenetrable Forest

In 1981, 250 mountain gorillas roamed the world. That number has soared to 1060, making gorilla trekking one of Africa’s greatest conservation success stories.
Written by Melanie van Zyl
27 January 2021

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Ten years ago, long before the Covid-19 pandemic transformed travel forever, local communities in Uganda earned about US$678,000 each year from tourists who came to witness mountain gorillas in their natural forested habitat. According to the World Wildlife Fund, each animal had an annual value of US$1 million to the Ugandan economy. Those figures have certainly increased a decade on. Fortunately, the population numbers too.

Uganda Map

 

On the 16 December 2019, Uganda’s Ministry of Tourism Wildlife and Antiquities and the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration revealed that the number of mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) in the 340 square-kilometre transboundary protected forest have increased to 459 from an estimated 400 in 2011. When you visit mountain gorillas in the wild, you’re not only contributing to their survival as creatures of the woods, but to those living on its periphery.

The aptly-named Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park is home to over half of the world’s population of mountain gorillas and is a popular trekking destination to see them. You’ll need waterproof boots, long trousers, socks pulled up over the hems to prevent those pesky biting ants from getting in and a gorilla permit to visit them. In a bid to attract visitors back to Uganda, the permit fee costs just $400 instead of the usual $700 (valid until the end of March 2021). If you have the means and can travel responsibly, there’s never been a more affordable time to tick off this bucket-list experience.

Also read: Discover Africa’s last old-growth forests, the earth’s second green lung 

Flying over the great lakes district
Most trekking adventures start just outside the Ugandan capital. Entebbe is less busy than bustling Kampala and home to the sprawling Lake Victoria. To enter Uganda at the moment, you’ll need to show a certificate of a negative PCR test (no older than 72 hours) on arrival | Source: Melanie van Zyl

 

Rushaga Uganda
Dawn light spills over the Rushaga region of Bwindi. This is one of the four sectors that make up Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and is located in the southern part of the park in the Kisoro district. Rushaga is named for all the mahogany trees that characterise the verdant area | Source: Melanie van Zyl

 

Rushaga Uganda
Curio stalls, school uniform looms and fresh produce markets line the dirt track in front of the forest gates. The Rushaga region of Bwindi is home the largest number of gorillas, which comprises five gorilla families (other sectors have three or less) | Source: Melanie van Zyl

 

Bwindi Crafts
The world’s population of mountain gorillas is essentially split into two thanks to the degradation of indigenous forest. Just over half live in the Virunga Mountains (a range of mostly dormant volcanoes bordering the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda). The balance can be found in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda | Source: Melanie van Zyl

 

Bwindi Gorilla Trekking
Tourists gather at these bomas inside the national park at around 8am for their trek. There are two ways to see Uganda’s mountain gorillas. A regular permit allows you to join a tracker and find gorillas as they move through the forest. It can take anything from three hours to a full day and allows a full hour observing a gorilla family. There’s also the gorilla habituation experience, which is a full-day excursion and enables four hours alongside a gorilla family. The latter option is currently only available in the Rushaga district | Source: Melanie van Zyl

 

Porters Gorilla Trek Uganda
Alongside the tourists, porters gather daily at the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park too. Their service is not part of the gorilla permit fee, instead the porter system supplies extra employment to the surrounding community. It works on a rotation system (it’s good and fair) but unemployment is rife, so porters often only work once a month. It costs just $15 to hire a porter. Keep in mind, however, that this amount can sometimes be a porter’s full salary due to the rotation scheme – tip kindly | Source: Melanie van Zyl

 

Uganda
Guides divide visitors into groups and decide which gorilla family they will try to find. We were designated the Mucunguzi family. About 150 gorilla permits are issued each day and 19 gorilla families can be visited from different access points | Source: Melanie van Zyl

 

Gorilla trekking pole
Walking sticks are freely available. Do yourself a favour and take one to aid you through the slippery, chocolate ice cream mud of the rainforest | Source: Melanie van Zyl

 

Trek Forest
Ecotourism provides environmentally sensitive employment and promotes community development. Tourists mean money, jobs and a better standard of living for many in Uganda | Source: Melanie van Zyl

 

Katungi Said, our machete-wielding Uganda Wildlife Authority guide, led us into the forest. It’s named ‘impenetrable’ for good reason and we even donned gardening gloves as protection against the fine needle-like coverings of forest ferns. Where the gorillas go, you go | Source: Melanie van Zyl

 

It can take anything from 25 minutes to five hard hours to find a gorilla family, even when they’re accompanied by human bodyguards (which they are during daylight hours between 6am and 6pm) | Source: Melanie van Zyl

 

Gorilla Trek Uganda
Fortune favoured us. Just a short half an hour into the tracking, there she sat. A female gorilla (far smaller than Hollywood’s King Kong films would have one believe) totally unobstructed and bang in the middle of the trail | Source: Melanie van Zyl

 

Forest
Among East African forests, Bwindi is one of the most diverse boasting more than 100 types of ferns and over 200 tree species (making up more than 50 percent of Uganda’s total tree varieties) | Source: Melanie van Zyl

 

Bwindi Birds
The Bwindi Impenetrable Forests also boasts plenty of other wildlife besides their stars, the gorillas. The lush habitat boasts over 340 birds species | Source: Melanie van Zyl

 

Thanks to escalated interest in the conservation of gorillas in the 80s and 90s, there’s now a direct correlation between ecotourism and saving a species. As a result of Covid-19, more stringent viewing procedures have come into place. Visitors, staff and trackers have their temperature checked at every briefing point, and visitors must carry at least two surgical face masks to ensure single-use on visitation | Source: Melanie van Zyl

 

In 2020, Bwindi experienced something of a baby boom. The Uganda Wildlife Authority reported the birth of five young gorillas, when usually there’s just one or two a year | Source: Melanie van Zyl

 

Gorilla hand
98 percent human. Sequencing of the chimpanzee, bonobo and gorilla genomes in 2012 confirmed Darwin’s evolution supposition. Chimps and bonobos take pride of place as our nearest living relatives, sharing approximately 99 percent of our DNA, with gorillas trailing at 98 percent. | Source: Melanie van Zyl

 

Batwa Uganda
It would be irresponsible not to mention the other forest inhabitants that once lived amongst these trees too. Before Bwindi National Park was gazetted and protected, it was home to the Batwa tribe. The ‘pygmy’ people, as they are also referred to, were forced out of the forests in 1991 without any land compensation. Essentially they’re conservation refugees and squatters. Many porters, like mine, named Kate Bekunda, are of Batwa heritage | Source: Melanie van Zyl

 

In conjunction with your gorilla trekking safari to Uganda, get to know the story of the Batwa and contribute where you can. The Batwa are Uganda’s most marginalised community and were evicted from their forest home over two decades ago when Bwindi became a national park. Seek out an ethical tour that avoids exploitation of the Batwa. Try the Uganda Wildlife Authority’s Batwa Forest Experience, which was launched in Bwindi in April 2019. There is express government support for this activity and if you want to undertake the Batwa Forest Experience on the day before or after the gorilla trek, park entry fees for tourists are waived. The trail takes place in the forest and includes demonstrations of various aspects of the Batwa culture, for example, honey collecting | Source: Melanie van Zyl

 

Most lodges and camps offer a complimentary wash of your hiking shoes after trudging through the forest | Source: Melanie van Zyl

 

We sat with eight gorillas for an hour – seven females and their docile silverback. Together, they make up the Mucunguzi family. “Thank you”, said Said at the end of our trek. “Coming here plays a big role in conservation. 20% of the permit fee is deducted and distributed to the communities around the forest. You should count yourselves lucky – and don’t tell everyone it was so easy!”.

 

There’s way more to Uganda than its precious primates. If visiting Bwindi, schedule extra time to unearth other forest friends, such as the African pitta, elephants and enjoy hikes to waterfalls. While in Uganda, why not hop onto a boda boda tour and explore Kampala with a local, or head to the little-visited northern region and seek out the rugged wilderness of Kidepo Valley National Park.

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