Uganda is located across the equator in East Africa. The country has 2.9million hectares of forest cover including Bwindi Impenetrable Forest which is home to half of the world’s mountain gorilla population (over 400 individuals which is almost half of 1063 world mountain gorillas). Kibale Forest National Park, also, boasts of harboring 13 primate species including over 1400 chimpanzees, black and white colobus monkeys, grey cheeked mangabays, Demidoff’s bushbaby among others. Undoubtedly, Uganda offers a tropical vacation mainly for primate safaris including mountain gorilla trekking and chimpanzee tracking activities all year-round. To compliment your primate experience, there are activities you can do on Uganda safari for game viewing including day and night game drives, boat cruise safaris, hot air balloon safari (available only in Murchison Falls National Park), walking safari among others such as bird watching, canoe riding on Lake Bunyonyi and village walks.
Game drive safaris in Uganda are conducted in 4 savannah protected areas including Kidepo Valley, Murchison Falls, Queen Elizabeth and Lake Mburo National Parks. Overtime, the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) has added a number of wildlife reserves which are now open for visiting including Pian Upe close to Kidepo and Toro-Semuliki. Uganda lost its population of black and white rhinos due to poaching earlier during the civil wars in the 1980s. After the restoration of peace, overtime several wildlife areas were gazetted and southern white rhinos in 2005 were brought back. Today, Uganda has over 30 rhinos at a privately owned Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary along with 493 lions including tree climbing lions, over 5000 African elephants, Cape buffaloes, leopards and over 200 cheetahs (live only in Kidepo Valley and Pian-Upe).
Big Five Safari in Uganda
To that end, there’s a chance to encounter the Big Five African animals while on Uganda safari. On the western Uganda circuit trip, you need to include Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary for rhino trekking on foot with a ranger, do night and day game drives in Murchison Falls and Queen Elizabeth National Parks for a chance to spot big cats especially lions and leopards. Given that African elephants and Cape buffaloes are common to see during your safari more attention should be put on night game drives mainly to search for leopards and the experiential lion tracking activity available in Kasenyi plains northern sector of Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP). With lion tracking, you are guaranteed to see lions better than regular game drives as well as get involved in conservation of Uganda’s wildlife with the Uganda Carnivore Project (UCP). Lion tracking permit cost is $100 per person. What’s more in the same park there are tree climbing lions in Ishasha wilderness area. Tree climbing lions can be spotted resting in fit trees – a behavior the big cats have adopted in order to avoid ground insects and escape heat as they rest in the branches. Situated south of Mweya visitor center in the rift valley close to the border with Democratic Republic of Congo, Ishasha is home to topi an antelope specie not found in the north. Most travelers drive through this area when going to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest south-western Uganda. A single game drive just through Ishasha area may or may not offer a chance to spot the tree climbing lions. The greatest opportunity to see tree climbing lions is staying at one of the lodges for a night as well as enjoy a game walk and bush breakfast by the side of River Ishasha with hippos and elephants. Elsewhere, the tree climbing lions of East Africa can be found in Lake Manyara National Park in Tanzania.
Top Savannah protected areas for game viewing in Uganda
The four savannah parks including Murchison Falls, Kidepo Valley, Queen Elizabeth and Lake Mburo National Parks can be visited on a single itinerary around Uganda. Expect to pay park entrance fees every 24 hours of your stay in one of the savannah parks mentioned above. Alternatively, those intending to do a short safari drive of 3 to 4 days from Kampala capital city or Entebbe town one of the three depending on which is best park for game viewing in terms of wildlife species of interest, scenery, lots of game viewing activities and accessibility as explained below: -
Lake Mburo National Park
The park is 255 sq.km south-west of Kampala capital city and is the easiest to access by 3 to 4-hour drive. The park is best for those seeking a day trip or weekend break away from the city. It also provides a great stopover for those interesting in breaking the long journey traveling to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park – southwestern Uganda. The protected area offers a number of activities to view wildlife by bush walk which is why it was nicknamed the “whispers of the wild”, horseback riding and mountain biking which are not available in the rest of the savannah parks. Noteworthy, the park is the only protected area with plains zebras and impalas on western Uganda circuit safari. Though small in size (260 sq.km), the park contains a variety of habitats including 13 lakes, several wetlands, tall and short-grass savannah dotted with acacia and euphorbia trees, woodlands and tropical forest galleries such as Rubanga which support rich biodiversity. There are 68 mammal species including leopard and 317 species of birds in Lake Mburo National Park. Animals you expect to spot in the park include impala, plains zebra, Rothschild’s giraffe, eland, topi, Uganda kob, Cape buffalo, warthogs, defassa waterbuck, reedbuck, bushbuck, waterbuck and oribi. There are no elephants and lions. The chance to see leopard in Lake Mburo is by opting for a night game in the park. Other wildlife including hippos, crocodiles and water birds can be spotted during boat cruise on Lake Mburo available at 8 to 11am in the morning, 1pm to 5pm for afternoon and sunset at 6:30pm.
Murchison Falls National Park
Uganda’s largest protected area Murchison Falls National Park is highly recommended place for game viewing and those interested in spectacular waterfalls, boat cruise safari along the Nile River and hot air balloon safari in Uganda. The park is 305 sq.km (5-hour drive) north of Kampala capital city with northern entrance gate at Tangi via the Kampala-Gulu highway and Kichumbanyobo via Masindi town in the south. No matter the gate you want to use, Ziwa Rhino sanctuary is in Nakitoma village Nakasangola district about 52 km off the main road. That’s the only place to see rhinos on foot in Uganda and rhino trekking permit cost is $50 per person. Those who use the southern entrance should visit the top of the falls to witness where the Nile River squeezes through a narrow gorge and plunges over a 40-meter cliff with a thunderous roar into the “devil’s cauldron”. Murchison Falls is believed to be second powerful waterfall in Africa with the first being Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe.
The Nile River divides the park into two area including south with tropical forests and north contains savannah dotted with Borasus palm trees and delta wetlands. The northern sector is the main area for game drives and boat cruise along the Nile begin at Paara. Those who intend to stay in south need to catch time to drive across the bridge to north for game viewing. Wildlife encounters expected in Murchison Falls National Park include lion, leopard, African elephant, Rothschild’s giraffe, hippos, Nile crocodiles and there over 415 species of birds. Night game drives are available in the park for those intending to spot leopard and nocturnal spotted hyenas. Following early morning game drives, visitors should gather at Paara before 2pm for boat cruise. Launch trips in Murchison Falls National Park offer a chance to see the bottom of the falls as the boat stops 10 meters away visitors can take a hike from there to the top of the falls where the view is most spectacular. During day between 2 pm to 5pm, elephants and buffaloes come to drink water along with hippos, Nile crocodiles and a variety of water birds including African fish eagle.
The park has no zebras instead there are several antelope species including hartebeest, eland, Uganda kob, bushbuck, waterbuck, oribi among other primates such as patas monkeys. Besides, the regular launch trips, there are small boats for hire for keen birders intending to spot the shoebill stalk. When navigating the narrow channels of Nile-Albert delta wetlands lions may be spotted resting by the banks. Though, this depends on communication from the park ranger or your guide.
Queen Elizabeth National Park
Uganda’s most visited game viewing destination, Queen Elizabeth National Park is home to the tree climbing lions of East Africa, 97 mammal species including lion, leopard, African elephant and cape buffalo; over 600 species of birds and primate species including chimpanzees. The park has two areas including Ishasha wilderness in the south with tree climbing lions and Kasenyi plains in the north with Kazinga channel which connects Lake George and Lake Edward. Activities in Queen Elizabeth National Park are largely done in Kasenyi area including day and night game drives, boat cruise safari along the Kazinga channel, bird watching, visiting the Lake Katwe to see the process of mining salt and chimpanzee trekking in Kalinzu Forest Reserve and Kyambura gorge. The park also offers experiential tourism activities including mongoose and lion tracking, hippo and bird counts.
In addition to wildlife, the park is a must visit gem in East Africa making it a good place for keen photographers. Nicknamed “the medley of wonders” it contains spectacular physical features including over 100 rift valley explosion crater lakes, Kazinga channel, Lake Katwe and Kyambura gorge the underground tropical forests. The equator crosses the park and the landmark can be visited for photo shoots and experimentation especially those traveling from Kasese municipality and Kibale Forest National Park.
Kidepo Valley National Park
Situated in the semi-desert Karamoja region north-eastern part of Uganda, Kidepo Valley National Park is 571 sq.km (10-hour drive) away from Kampala capital city. The park can be accessed by air through Apoka airstrip which is 3km away from the park visitor center. Due to its remoteness, the park offers off-the-beaten path game viewing with a chance to see cheetahs on Uganda safari. Oftentimes you may see no other vehicle on game track making for peaceful game viewing and spectacular semi-desert landscape including the dry Morungole Mountains (2749 m) which is the opposite of western Uganda. Kidepo also offers authentic cultural encounters with Karamojong nomadic pastoralists similar to Masai of Kenya and Tanzania and the IK mountain people who resemble the San Bushmen of Kalahari Desert in Botswana. In terms of wildlife the park is rich in biodiversity including 441 species of birds and 77 mammal species of which cheetahs, ostrich, Aard wolf, striped hyena, Bat-eared fox and back-backed jackals are not found in other parks of Uganda. Kidepo boats of harboring the largest single herd of up to 4000 buffaloes. Other animals in Kidepo include lions, leopards, elephants, plains zebra, Rothschild’s giraffe, eland, Jackson’s hartebeest, impala and Uganda kob. Wildlife in Kidepo is most active in the Narus valley which provide green pastures and permanent waterholes.
The park can be visited along with other parks on the eastern Uganda circuit safari including Pian Upe Wildlife Reserve, hiking in Mount Elgon National Park and Sipi falls in Kapchorwa. In particular, Pian Upe Wildlife Reserve is home to roan antelope, Grant’s gazelle and white-eared kob which are not found anywhere else in Uganda.
Toro-Semuliki Wildlife Reserve
Situated between Lake Albert and Rwenzori mountains in Ntoroko and Kabarole districts western Uganda, Toro-Semuliki Wildlife Reserve is 222 km from Kampala capital city and 50 km from Fort Portal city. The reserve is rich biodiversity with a large number of Uganda kobs, over 460 species of birds including Congo basin forest biome species on their eastern range limit such as NKurengu rail, dwarf honeyguide and pipping hornbill and 7 primate species including chimpanzees, central African red colobus monkeys, De Brazza’s monkeys, black and white colobus monkeys and red-tailed monkeys. Those visiting Semuliki or Rwenzori Mountains National Parks can easily add this reserve mainly for birding and primate walk that offers a chance to see chimpanzees in the grasslands at Mugiri. There’s only one accommodation Semuliki Safari Lodge and Uganda Wildlife visitor center offers guided day game drives with a chance to spot kobs. Boat cruise excursions on Lake Albert are available for those intending to look for shoebill stalk. Large mammals are rare to see including buffalo and elephant. Night game drives in Toro-Semuliki offer a chance to spot leopard or hear the roaring lion. Other activities include a 7km hike to Nyaburogo gorge for birding and primate viewing.
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