Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is the second safari park in Uganda where mountain gorillas live, the other being Bwindi impenetrable forest national park. It’s the smallest park in Uganda covering an area of 33.7 sq km located in southwestern Uganda about 15 km from Kisoro town and 482 sq km from Kampala city.
The park was first declared a game reserve in 1930 and gazzetted in 1991 mainly to protect mountain gorillas and other wildlife. It forms part of the 434 sq km greater Virunga Conservation Area, a chain of 8 volcanoes which is a home to some 300 mountain gorillas including those in the neighboring Volcanoes national park Rwanda and Virunga national park in Democratic Republic of Congo.
Besides being small, it’s most biologically diverse and scenic having been awarded the “Best Trip” in 2012 by National Geographic and we consent. The park is not only a wildlife hot spot but also features a cultural heritage importance.
It’s a home to the BaTwa pygmies the elders of civilization and the shortest people on planet earth.
Before their eviction from the forest in 1991, the BaTwa were warrior hunters and fruit gathers and lived in the forest for centuries. Tourists are guaranteed an authentic cultural experience on an interesting cultural trail to Garama ancient caves with BaTwa guides unraveling their concealed secrets of life in the forest.
The most magnificent features of the park are the 3 moderate altitude dormant volcanoes (between 2,227 to 4,127 meters above sea level). They include Mt. Gahinga (3,474 m) Mt. Muhabura (4,127 m) and Mt. Sabinyo 3,645m) where one can stand in 3 countries at the same time.
A visit to Mgahinga is worth it, the volcanoes offer great hiking opportunities as well as panoramic views of the virunga conservation area.
Volcano hiking will show you how the park is remote and pristine. All volcanoes can be climbed in one but long and tiresome day. Hiking starts from Ntebeko, main visitor center and hikers do not need to book in advance.
Mountain gorillas are the main tourist attractions in the park and tourists can plan with a trusted tour operator for their gorilla trekking safaris conducted all year round. However, the best time to trek gorillas is during a dry season in December to February and June to September
Gorilla safaris in Mgahinga commence from Ntebeko visitor center and entry gate daily at 08:00am. The Uganda wildlife authority guides lead tourists through the forest, along the way explaining the gorilla’s social and ecological behavior.
Therefore, considering the strict time to begin gorilla trekking, it’s advisable for trekkers to stay in lodges or hotels not far away from Ntebeko entry gate to be on time for your trekking experience. If you are interested in knowing more information about gorillas and or other activities, visit the Uganda Wildlife Authority office in Kisoro town.
For instance the road trips from Kisoro town about 15 km to the park are dirt and bumpy due to volcanic rocks hence it’s wise to wake up early and also use 4WD safari vehicles. Though, Mgahinga Park may not be famous as Bwindi because there is only 1 habituated gorilla family (Nyakagezi) which is very nomadic but accessible on guided trek with Uganda Wildlife Authority guides.
Vegetation and other Wildlife in the park
Mgahinga gorilla national park’s volcano slopes contain varied ecosystems ranging from the montane woodlands, tropical forests and bamboo, moorland and tree heathers to the rare afromontane vegetation. Hence the park is ever wet and covered by mist; visitors need to prepare for damp weather conditions.
It experiences two seasons, the dry season from December to February and June to September while the wet season runs from March to April and September to November. Temperatures range from 15° Celsius during day to less tha10 ° Celsius at night.
Besides the endangered mountain gorillas, the park’s ecosystem is also a home to a variety of wildlife. The notable being the IUCN red listed Golden Monkey which is endemic to Virungas massifs. Golden monkeys stay in the bamboo slopes and can be visited through golden monkey tracking with UWA guides.
Other wildlife includes 79 species of birds including Albertine rift and Eastern Congo forest endemics such as the regal sunbird and Rwenzori Turaco. Hence birding is one of the park’s tourist activities taking birder to Rugezi swamp and between the volcanoes.
About 39 species of mammals have been recorded, though speculations say the mammal species living in the park are twice the recorded figure. Some of the mammals in the park include forest elephants, golden cat, leopards, blue monkeys, buffalo, black fronted duikers and stripe sided jackals, bush backs among others.
Though the experience of trekking gorillas in bamboo is rewarding and memorable, but the most heartfelt moment on your safari to this park is undoubtedly the experience with BaTwa, oldest people on planet earth.
All tourism activities including gorilla trekking, golden monkey tracking, nature walks, hiking start from Ntebeko visitor center. There are several accommodations ranging from high end to budget in and outside the park.
There are several straight forward ways to get to the park. From Kampala via kabale and kisoro towns, the road drive takes 8-10 hour covering 524 km passing through scenic views of terraced rolling hills of kigezi region. The roads from Kisoro town to the Ntebeko the park headquarters are a bit rough and need 4WD vehicle.
Another optional route diverts from Kabale town via the shores of island strewn Lake Bunyonyi to Muko where you proceed on a 14 km dirt road to Ntebeko visitor center in the park. Visitors can spare time to visit Lake Bunyonyo for swimming, boat cruise, suns set canoeing, traditional food and birding.
Flights to Mgahinga gorilla national park can be arranged from Entebbe to Kisoro airstrip and then drive for 14 km to your accommodation.
Kahuzi-Beiga National Park is located in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo approximately 40 km from Bakuvu town in South Kivu Province close to Lake Kivu and the western border of Rwanda and DRC. It was gazetted in 1970 to protect and conserve the critically endangered Eastern lowland gorilla (Grauer’s gorillas) which is the largest of all gorilla subspecies in Africa.
The park is also a home to 135 mammals, 336 birds and 12 species of primates including chimpanzee. The park was named after two volcanoes Mt. Kahuzi and Mt. Beiga which make the park both mountainous and low-lying giving it a diversity of habitats where many Albertine rift endemic species can be spotted. Other species include 69 species of reptiles and 44 species of amphibians.
With approximately less 4,000 eastern lowland gorillas left in the wild today which largely live outside the protected areas, Kahuzi-Beiga National Park a UNESCO world heritage site is a home to 250 individuals. The Congolese Institute for Wildlife and Nature Conservation in partnership with other conservation organizations amidst wars has relentlessly protected the gorillas, other wildlife and their habitats. This has encouraged lowland gorilla tourism in the park for more than 6 years given that tourism helps to generate funds caring for conservation and helping people around the park with alternative sources of income to reduce poverty.
Although DR Congo has always been associated with a bad image due to civil wars, Kahuzi-Beiga National park experienced less havoc keeping it fairly safe and secure because civil conflicts largely affected the Virunga National Park in the eastern parts and Northern Kivu Province. Hence the park offers the most unsurpassed Eastern lowland gorilla trekking experience in Africa.
Throughout the conflicts and civil wars in the 1990’s, eastern lowland gorillas in the park were also affected to a lesser extent. Lowland gorillas including other wildlife were also being killed, poached and their habitat encroached upon which prompted the ICCN to establish its presence and re-launch low land gorilla tourism. Today the park receives few visitors who mainly come for Eastern lowland gorilla trekking safaris and also view other wildlife or visit communities.
In addition to conservation and protection of eastern lowland gorillas, efforts have been spearheaded through initiatives such as habituation of new gorilla families, setting up a tourist visitor center and accommodations, creation of other tourism activities like birding, volcano hiking, empowering local people, training and equipping of wildlife rangers in order to facilitate long tourist stay in park. This has also established tourism as a major source of sustainable revenues for conservation and community development.
Eastern low land gorilla trekking is the most tourist activity done in the park. Two gorilla families have been habituated while the other two are still under habituation and will soon add up to 4 families. The habituated ones are much well loved by tourists because they have large numbers including silverbacks, females, infants, juveniles and sub silverbacks.
Treks are easy if one is fairly fit since the terrain is much low-lying and less mountainous. Treks start with a briefing from the guides and all trekkers will be requested to wear masks not transmit coughs or colds to gorillas. It’s better to have hiking gears such as boots, rain jackets, packed food and camera equipment.
Trekking starts at Tshivanga the main tourist centre in the park and may last for 1 to 6 hours depending on where the guides shall locate the gorillas but time spent with gorillas is strictly one hour. Tourists need to book their DR Congo lowland gorilla safari with a safari company which can also secure for you the gorilla permits (each at $400 per person), DRC tourist visas and accommodations of course in advance. Contact your operator for more ground details.
The park can be easily accessed using your tour operator from neighboring Kigali Rwanda hence giving you a chance if possible to also trek mountain gorillas in Rwanda or Uganda. From Kigali it takes 5-6 hours crossing over the border at Cyangugu/ kamembe to the park while from Burundi it takes 3 hours to reach the park. Those in Goma city can get to the park both on water and land. There are speed boats taking 2 hours or slow ones for 6 hours via Lake Kivu.
Flights may be quick from Kigali airport to Goma but will still require short road drives to the park.
Gishwati forest reserve is one of the protected forest reserves in Rwanda located in the north western side in four sectors of Ruhango, Nyabirasi, kigeyo and Mushonyi in Rutsiro district covering about 10 sq km. the forest can be accessed from volcanoes national park by road covering 27 km or take a one and a half hour drive from Kigali city.
The forest reserve lies within the Albertine rift valley near Lake Kivu and includes the stretches of Mukura forest reserve hence was recognized for its biodiversity of species of flora and fauna including the Albertine rift endemics. In 2007 the Gishwati area conservation program started in partnership with the great ape trust to save the forest from human pressure that had earlier massively encroached on the forests before and during the genocide of 1994 reducing its size through establishment of farmlands, settlements and illegal charcoal burning and timber cutting.
As a result of detrimental human activities causing severe soil erosion, landslides due to degradation that was putting the life of species of wildlife at risk of extinction. In 2015 the government of Rwanda announced plans to transform Gishwati –Mukura forest reserve into a national park although plans to restore the forest reserve are still underway including creation of buffer zones to easy movement of wildlife and prevent human encroachment.
Rwanda has a vision of increasing its forest cover by 30 % and has already made deals with the World Bank and the global environmental facility to fund the restoration of Gishwati-Mukura forests reserve as well as providing alternative sources of income to the locals near the proclaimed national park. Activities to restore the forest have already received funding and they include tree planting, sustainable land use management to address issues of farmers and cattle keepers through the land approach to forest restoration and rehabilitation. Through such a project locals will benefit employment in form of guides, rangers, local community tourism based enterprises making and selling crafts, hotels and restaurants will all improve the lives of people near the park.
Therefore the Rwandan development board has partnered with the Rwandan ministry of natural resources to design to introduce some tourist activities to widen the experience of tourists as well as supporting local people living near the new national park hoped to generate revenues.
Primates and mammals
A variety of wildlife lives in the forests such as four species of primates including the eastern chimpanzee, golden monkeys which are critically endangered and red listed by IUCN, the handsome L’hoest monkey, blue monkey, the black and white Colobus monkey have also been sighted roaming the forests. Chimpanzee and golden monkey tracking are possible adventure activities for tourists in the newly created national park. Species of mammals also dwell in the forest which includes the black fronted duikers, southern tree hyrax, river hogs. Primate and wildlife safaris have a chance to discover more species living in the forest.
Birding safaris to Rwanda have a chance to explore the new national park birds and its known birding is one of the activities that make visitors stay for long in a destination. Facilities to make birding come true have been established such as camping, walking trails that also allows visitors to explore the forest on foot.
Gishwati-Mukura forest reserve has a list of 130 species of including the alluring list of 15 Albertine rift endemics. Endemic species of birds commonly sighted include the red throated alethe, the Rwenzori turaco, the regal sunbird, strange weaver, martial eagle, grey crowned crane Rwenzori batis. The forest is a birders paradise; other species of birds that can be seen include mountain yellow warblers, wood hoopoes, and several species of weaver birds waiting for you to discover them. You never know you could discover new species of birds since the forest has been transformed into a new national park and become a hero especially along the walking trials around the kazeneza sparkling waterfalls inside the forests.
Other important wildlife includes several species of amphibians and reptiles such as the brown forest frog and chameleons and bush vipers respectively. Various types of trees have also been discovered about 58 including indigenous trees, shrubs, such as Macaranga kilimand and mahogany known to be among the hardest tree species. Giant tree ferns, orchids, blue lichens are also found in the forest teeming with an array of colorful butterflies.
The new Gishwati-Mukura national park is hoped to give tourists a new experience as well as contribute to the development of communities near the forest. In addition help to preserve the environment through eco tourism given the support from conservation bodies like the great ape trust that work together with local people and the Rwandan Development Board