Uganda does have ‘traditional’ open savanna parks with elephants, giraffes and big cats. More than that, however, it also has smaller wildlife areas inhabited by highly diverse, and sometimes endemic, species of flora and fauna; enjoying highly varied climates and at different altitudes. For example, Uganda is home to 13 of the world’s primates, including half of all mountain gorillas and large populations of chimpanzees.
On the debit side – and this is something that needs to be pointed out – Uganda came through two decades or more of civil war and unrest that left many of its national parks badly affected by conflict.
Thankfully, those days are now in the past and Uganda’s national parks are thriving once again. Some may not have returned fully to their past glory, but they are well on their way to recovery and the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) must be commended on its good work in this regard. UWA has also been supported by external agencies that have recognised the significance of Uganda’s wildlife areas and the unique role many of them play in world biodiversity.
As a birdwatching destination, Uganda is probably unrivalled anywhere, with an astonishing 1,000 or so bird species, some of which are endemic. In fact, many visitors come to Uganda just for the birdwatching. It really is that good.
Apart from the primate-dominated parks in the west of the country, there was little in the way of sustained tourism development in other parks owing to past events. But this situation has now changed. Yet some major parks still have few lodges inside the gates. And this is one of Uganda's big selling points as a destination.
One of the best known of Uganda’s national parks, and certainly the most memorably named, is Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, a Unesco World Heritage Site. Covering only 331 sq km, Bwindi is the best place to see the critically endangered mountain gorilla. Gorillas can also be viewed in Mgahinga National Park.
Kibale National Park is a forested area for higher primates, with 13 available to see including chimpanzees.
Uganda’s other natural Unesco World Heritage Site, the Rwenzori Mountains National Park, offers an altogether different experience, with high mountain passes and unique examples of flora. The Rwenzoris also provide one of Africa’s truly great hiking experiences.
While Semuliki National Park, in the remote west beyond the Rwenzoris is the furthest extent of the forest that stretches across the Congo Basin and is famed as the home of the Batwa people.
The pick of Uganda’s open savanna areas are the 3,840 sq km Murchison Falls (Uganda’s largest) and the 1,978 sq km Queen Elizabeth National Park as well as the much smaller Lake Mburo National Park. Both of the bigger parks provide a wide choice of accommodation and growing numbers of plains game and are within easy reach of Kampala.
Offering a complete change of landscape and environment and located in the extreme east is Mount Elgon Nation Park. Dominated by Mount Elgon, which has the largest volcanic base in the world, the park has its own collection of animals at lower levels, while at higher altitudes there are exotic flora and an opportunity for visitors to climb to the caldera, 3,000 metres above sea level.
Perhaps the least visited and most inaccessible is the 1,442 sq km Kidepo Valley National Park in the far north, close to Kenya’s Turkana District and straddling the border with South Sudan. The remoteness and untamed wilderness of Kidepo has been its salvation and the park emerged largely unscathed from Uganda’s troubles. For many, the 700 km trip from Kampala is worth the journey as there are 77 different mammals and about 475 birds to see.
With 10 very different parks from which to choose, Uganda presents a truly varied destination – one that keeps visitors coming back time after time.