Uganda—a country once torn apart by a civil war that kept most tourists and scientists away. And the last remaining elephants, lions and mountain gorillas were threatened by poaching.
But now, after decades of chaos, Uganda’s natural paradise is being restored and protected in national parks – just in time for the 300 or so mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park. Very different from those in the nearby Virunga Park, these gorillas build nests in trees, climb around searching for leaves and fruit – even in the daytime – and share their territory with chimpanzees.
In south-west Uganda, Bwindi, and the adjacent Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, are rich tropical rainforests, home to forest elephants. But Mount Elgon National Park in the north-east is a hot desert savannah stretching across the bottom of a huge crater. The eastern flank of the ancient volcano is dotted with deep caves, including Kitum Cave, a ‘salt shop’ for wild animals. Elephants tramp into the cave and use their tusks to dislodge salt from the rock.
Mount Elgon is over 4,000 metres high but is dwarfed by the Rwenzori Mountains, crystalline peaks over 6,000 metres, and a glacier that towers above the neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo. Everything here is unique, from primeval ferns and giant plants to the huge range of birds and countless types of chameleons.
Classic Africa – the Africa of the savannah – is found in Murchison Falls National Park on the banks of the Nile, among the craters and lakes of the eastern Rwenzori Mountains. And Uganda’s unique animals include the chimpanzees of Semliki. Unlike other chimpanzees, they live in a dry forest region with wide open spaces – the climate and landscape that was once home to the first humans. These chimpanzees live in larger groups and are much less aggressive than other chimpanzees – a unique insight into the behaviour of our closest relatives.
In Queen Elizabeth National Park, an unusual pride of about 30 lions hunt at night like most lions, but rest during the day in trees. Sometimes, a dozen or more adult lions can be seen lounging about at different heights on the thick lower branches of fig trees. It’s not clear why – maybe they escape tsetse flies on the ground – but these lions have a good view of the large herds of antelopes – their main source of food.