Echuya Forest Reserve sits on 36 sq. km. (3,403 hectares) in Kisoro District, southwest Uganda. The forest lies at 2,270m – 2,570m above sea level. It is made of a large swamp and surrounded by four lakes of Kayumba and Chahafi to the south west, Bunyonyi to the east, and Mulehe to the north.
The northern section of Echuya forest is bisected by the Kabale-Kisoro highway, which leads to Bwindi impenetrable national park and Mgahinga gorilla national park. Those on a safari that may include include gorilla trekking in any of those parks can visit Echuya mainly for birding and cultural walks.
Echuya is at the edge of the Albertine rift valley with rich biodiversity including over 103 bird species of which over 5 are Albertine rift endemics such as the handsome spurfowl as well as primates and 20 small mammal species. There are Batwa pygmies living on the edges, so you can interact with them to learn more about their culture such as the prehistoric firemaking Batwa style. Echuya forest reserve has potential for eco tourism given that there are accommodations in the nearby places. Travelers can undertake day trips to Echuya from lake Bunyonyi, Mulehe, Mgahinga, Kisoro, and Kabale municipalities.
Vegetation in Echuya forest reserve
Echuya forest is an afromontane tropical evergreen forest with a variety of vegetation including African alpine bamboo (yushania alpina), which occupies over 20% of its total area. The rest of the area is covered by a forest containing the Macaranga kilimandscharia and the East African rosewood (Hagenia abyssinica) trees. These wild fruit species attract 3 turaco subspecies including the Ruwenzori turaco (Musophaga johnstoni), black-billed turaco (Tauraco schuettii), and great blue turaco (Corythaeola cristata).
Other flowering plants found in Echuya include Polyscias fulva (polysias), Albizia gummifera, beech tree (faurea saligna), rabaus apelatus, and rattle pods (crotalaria). Plants that form the understory contain a variety of shrubs, climbing lianas, and herbs including wild pepper (piper capense), lady’s mantle (alchemilla johnstonii), wild cinnamon (drognetia iners), shiny-leaf buckthorn (rhamnus prinoides), copper leaf (acalypha pinata) among others. Primate species such as the blue monkeys (Cercopithecus mitis) and baboons (Papio anubis) also feed on the new bamboo shoots.
In the center of the forest at 2,300 meters, there’s Muchuya swamp, which is 7 sq.km long and contains grassy tussock sedges (carex stricta) and giant lobelias. Sedges belong to the Cyperaceae family of high altitude wetland grass-like plants. They can also be found on the summit of Mount Sabinyo in Mgahinga gorilla national park.
There’s a footpath winding through parts of the grassy tussocks, interesting to walk through when the flowers bloom in May and June. Sedges in Echuya are a source of food to a variety of fauna for example the endemic mouse species like the moon forest shrew (Sylvisorex lunaris), and delany’s swamp mouse (Delanymys brooksi). Others include montane mouse shrew (Myosorex blarina), the Woosnam’s brush-furred rat (Lophuromys woosnami), and the montane shaggy rat (Dasymys montanus). The shrews feed on roots and rhizomes of sedges. The march is also a habitat for Albertine rift endemics such as the strange weaver (Ploceus alienus), Grauer’s warbler, dusky crimsonwing (Cryptospiza jacksoni), handsome spurfowl (Francolinus nobilis), and Rwenzori batis (Batis diops).
Conservation of Echuya forest reserve
Unlike other plants, Bamboo is the most important plant to the livelihoods of communities living around Echuya forest. Men harvest it for fuel wood, building poles as well as women to make crafts and household products like granaries and baskets.
A new study, “A Comparative Assessment of Biodiversity Changes in Echuya Central Forest Reserve Following Anthropogenic Activities Between 2015 and 2021,”reveals a previously unreported scale and potential effects of human disturbance on the vegetation of Echuya central forest reserve. As per the report the signs of human encroachment observed include bamboo stem harvesting, livestock grazing, fresh human trails, tree pole cutting, and firewood collection.
Clearing the plants, shrubs and vines that form the understory vegetation affects the birds and shrews that rely on them for food and shelter. Echuya was gazetted in 1939 and managed by the National Forestry Authority (NFA), which manages all central forest reserves (CFRs) in the country. The creation of nature trails for birding and hiking to the swamp is supposed to boost tourism at Echuya forest.
Conservationists have recently been recommending that Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) should also be included to increase law enforcement to prevent human encroachment and tourism for revenue sharing. UWA has a dedicated wildlife ranger and law enforcement workforce that is more professional to handle conservation and tourism than NFA currently does. There’s already success of tourism in forest reserves that are managed in partnership with UWA including Budongo, Kalinzu and Kyambura, which offer chimpanzee tracking safaris.
Echuya was included in the Forestry Nature Conservation Master Plan 1999, in which suggestions were laid out for the government to strengthen the foundation to manage and conserve CFRs together with local people. The lack of tourism revenue means that people depend on forest resources for livelihood. While tourism in Echuya is still youngest, there are many solutions being implemented to conserve Echuya forest reserve. For instance, NFA and partner organizations working to save Echuya central Forest Reserve are supporting communities to adopt agroforestry practices (the management involving the growing of trees in association with food crops or pastures.
Tourism and conservation help to protect the rich biodiversity of Echuya forest reserve which include 103 species of birds of over 5 are Albertine rift endemics, 20 small mammal species, and primates like blue monkeys and baboons. Birds are the most important attractions and hiking around Muchuya swamp provides excellent birding opportunities.
Echuya forest bird checklist includes Cinnamon-chested Bee-eater, Cardinal Woodpecker, Klaas’s Cuckoo Two Black-tailed Orioles, Rwenzori Batis, Northern Puffback, Albertine Boubou, White-necked Raven, Rwenzori Apalis, Mountain Yellow-Warbler, Cinnamon Bracken-Warblers, Black Saw wing, Red-faced Woodland-Warbler, Rwenzori Hill Babbler, White-eyed Slaty-Flycatcher, Archer’s Robin-Chat White-starred Robins, Blue-headed sunbird, Regal Sunbird, Baglafecht Weavers, Strange Weavers, Streaky Seedeater among others.
The Batwa pygmies
Echuya forest reserve is one of the few places in Uganda where you can meet the Batwa pygmies. Most travellers like experiencing Batwa culture at Mgahinga, Bwindi, and Semliki national parks. The Echuya pygmy community deserve your visit given that they’re not well involved in tourism as it is at the other places.
Batwa were forest dwellers who used to survive by hunting, gathering wild food, and collecting honey. The conservation policy passed in 1991 had Batwa chased them out of their ancestral lands across south west Uganda. The Batwa were driven from their native lands across south-western Uganda as a result of the conservation strategy adopted in 1991. Life outside of the jungle proved challenging before they could get used to cultivation.
They became some of the impoverished people due to hunger, poor healthcare, and nutrition. Tourism has been one of the measures to further improve the quality of life for Batwa, however. This has primarily benefited those who were given land and management of cultural tours in Bwindi, Mgahinga, and Semliki. Now with Echuya open for visiting, there’s hope for pygmies there to benefit from tourism. Experiencing the Batwa culture involves a village walk and seeing a demonstration of their ancient survival tactics such as the prehistoric ancient firemaking Batwa style, hunting, wild honey, and water harvesting.
How to get there
Echuya forest is 13 km from Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, 5 km east of lake Bunyonyi, 11 km from Kisoro, and 15 km west of Kabale town. Those traveling along the Kabale-Kisoro highway can make a stopover at Echuya. Payment to access the forest is made through the NFA outpost at the forest.
Where to stay
The accommodation closest to Echuya Forest Reserve can be found at lakes of Mulehe, Kayumbu, and Bunyonyi as well as in Mgahinga, and in Kisoro town. From there, travellers can undertake day trips to Echuya given that you’re not going to spend a night there.