Bwindi National Park – Awaiting Discovery!
We’re excited to welcome you to southern Bwindi, show you where we live, introduce you to our people and take you to some of our hidden places 😀
Karungi Camp offers you convenient access and close proximity to numerous adventures and experiences unique to our special corner of the world, including Bwindi National Park. Bwindi is famous for it’s mountain gorillas (approximately half of the world’s remaining population of this majestic species). But there’s more… Bwindi is a hotbed of biodiversity, and it’s dense cover of over 400 species of herbs, vines, shrubs and plants is the source of the “impenetrable” description. It’s also home to over 214 species of birds, 7 species of diurnal primates, 120 species of mammals and 202 species of butterflies – so be sure to pack your binoculars!
Bwindi’s famous mountain gorillas share their 321 square kilometer home with eight other globally threatened species, including common chimpanzees, l’Hoest’s monkey (Cercopithecus l’hoesti), African elephants, African green broadbills, Grauer’s rush warbler, Chaplin’s flycatcher, African giant swallowtail and cream-banded swallowtail.
Bwindi is also located in one of Uganda’s most densely populated rural areas. Approximately 10,000 families from the Bachiga, Bafumbira and Barwanda peoples cultivate the land immediately surrounding the National Park. These families depend on the Park as a water catchment area, source of employment and preserve of local flora and fauna. The Park in turns depends on the surrounding community for support and participation in conservation initiatives. Bwindi is maintained and managed by the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), and tourism related to the mountain gorilla is the only activity permitted within the Park.
Karungi Camp provides a perfect home base for your journey in Bwindi, and we’re happy to connect you with local guides and tour operators, and help you to navigate the often complicated process of obtaining gorilla tracking permits.
Some Bwindi History for you
At the beginning, billions of years ago before anyone’s memories could record it, this area was just steep mountains and narrow valleys. Pushed into shape by the rising western edge of the great African Rift Valley, they were intersected by streams and rivers and waterways that could not permeate the land, and so flowed down the hills to form the lakes we now call Lake Edward, Lake Bunyoni and Lake Mutanda. Because of the geology, the rain fell copiously, and the trees grew in abundance until the forest was formed; the lowlands were warm tropical forest, and the higher altitudes became a cooler, misty rainforest. Caught between the peaks of Rwenzori to the north, the Virunga Volcanoes in the south, the Albertine Rift and the Great Rift to the east and west, the pristine primeval forest stood silent and ancient for millennia.
Then the animals came; over the centuries many thousands of species made their homes here, and formed one of the richest ecosystems on the planet. When the world was covered in ice Bwindi was a refuge for many species that have remained to create one of the most biologically diverse areas on earth. Today there are still over 120 species of mammals, 348 kinds of birds, 220 different butterflies, 163 species of trees and 104 types of ferns. Migratory birds visit during the wet season, and roughly half of the world’s total mountain gorilla population lives here. It is the only forest in the world where both mountain gorillas and chimpanzees coexist.
And then the people came… First were the Batwa tribe, existing in natural harmony within the forest, they lived and worked, raised their families and told their stories for generations; custodians of the land they existed alongside the trees, the soil and the mighty apes they shared the forest with; hunting, foraging and fishing, they took only what they needed for their daily lives. The peoples who followed migrated slowly to the area over many years; some came because they were displaced from their own homelands, some came to escape the ravages of war, some to make a better life from the rich soil and temperate climate, some from mere curiosity of a bigger world. They gave the forest the name Bwindi: meaning ‘Impenetrable’, or ‘Place of Darkness’. And many of them came: bringing with them their knowledge of agriculture, logging and mining they settled the land all around the forest edge, and began to cultivate it. And slowly, slowly, the forest began to shrink. The people went into the forest to cut trees, set up saw pits, tend to their bee-hives, collect plants for food and medicine. And the years passed, and the forest continued to shrink in size. The tall stands of bamboo and hardwoods at the forest’s edge gave way to agricultural land, and the dense growths of vines and shrubs that covered the forest floor were cleared to make grazing land for livestock. The wild animals moved deeper into the rainforest, retreating into the high mountains, and the deep secret valleys as their numbers too, began to decrease.
But they were followed. By the time the 20th century had arrived the land bordering the Bwindi forest was becoming highly populated – to a density of more than 300 people per square kilometre, some of them among the poorest in Uganda. 90% of the population were dependant on subsistence farming, one of the area’s few ways to make a living. However, another, much more lucrative income could be made by poaching. In 1932 the first attempts were made to preserve the rainforest, and 2 large blocks of land were designated as Crown Forest Reserves. In 1942 they were combined, enlarged, and renamed the ‘Impenetrable Central Crown Forest’, and placed under the joint control of the Ugandan government’s game and forest departments. The rising popularity of zoos and wildlife parks in the outside world created the need for live gorillas and chimpanzees to fill their cages. The desire of wealthy businessmen and aristocrats in both the East and the West to own a ‘trophy’ created the demand for ashtrays made from a mountain gorilla’s hand, a skin cape from a large male silverback; a pet chimpanzee; an antelope hide throw; a butterfly collection. Poaching was big business, and paid big money, and some of the local people profited. In 1964 the Reserve was re-designated as an animal sanctuary in order to provide extra protection, mainly to its mountain gorilla population, and in 1966, two other forest reserves were added to its land mass.
Finally, in 1991 the area was combined with Mgahinga Gorilla Reserve, and Rwenzori Mountains Reserve, and achieved its current status of National Park. Things changed rapidly over the following 12 years; to attract revenue gorilla tracking became a tourist activity in April of 1993, and in 1994 another chunk of land was incorporated into the Park, and it was inscribed on the World Heritage List. The management changed again, and responsibility shifted to the Ugandan Wildlife Authority, who still holds the reins today. In 2003, the final chunk of land was purchased and incorporated; making the total area of the Park its current 331 square kilometres/128 square miles. The reclassification has protected the gorillas; the 2006 census showed that the population had increased to 340, from 300 in 1997. More than 100 of these 340 are habituated, and can be tracked all year round from four different points that access the forest: Buhoma, Ruhija, Rushaga and Nkuringo. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its ecological uniqueness and natural beauty Bwindi Impenetrable National Park should now retain its wildlife, its incredibly diverse flora and fauna, and its deep secrets for many generations yet to come.
And what of the people who make this beautiful place their home? How have they fared? Communities living adjacent to the Park are allowed some access to its resources, their land rights have been recognized, and they are compensated for any loss of livestock or crops to the Park’s wildlife. The previously forested areas which they have cut down continue to be heavily cultivated to provide subsistence and cash crops, but the high population and poor agricultural practices place a great deal of pressure on Bwindi, and are still a big threat. Prior to being gazetted as a National Park, rights to access were more liberal and not often reinforced, but the Batwa people, former custodial inhabitants of the forest for centuries have been evicted from their ancestral sites, and despite their historical claims to land rights have not benefitted from any national compensation scheme. They are no longer allowed to enter the park to access its resources, and this has caused resentment, and conflict. The Batwa have been the worst affected; living deep in Bwindi for generations without destroying the area’s ecosystem they now live on its fringes as displaced people, in relative poverty, doing menial work, for minimal income.
The mountain gorillas of Bwindi have suffered, and recovered. Their numbers continue to increase thanks to the protection of the Ugandan Wildlife Authority, although disease and habitat loss are still threats, as is poaching. Former poachers in the area have been persuaded away from this means of living by re-education, and compensation from a shared revenue scheme, but, sadly, where there is demand, there will always be supply. Tourism is a growing source of revenue to the area, and gorilla tracking is becoming more popular, however the habituation of gorillas to humans in order to facilitate tourism may have increased the damage they do to local inhabitants’ property and crops, as their fear of people has decreased.
And so, this is Bwindi today; an area of incredible beauty, and many outstanding features and attributes, but not without its problems. There is poverty here in abundance, there is conflict between mankind and wildlife, and there are unresolved issues. There are questions with no answers. Someday, with luck, patience and understanding, we may find them.
Beyond the National Park, you can explore the local community (Ruguburi) and the rest of Uganda. Ruguburi is home to predominantly 2 tribes, the Bakiga and Batwa people. The Bakiga are agriculturalists who have always lived and worked communally. A short walk through the village and surrounding trail system will demonstrate this communal life, as you can see local women tilling the fields and working family plots together. The local language is Rukiga, one of 7 Bantu languages spoken in the southern part of Uganda.
Uganda is a small landlocked country, surrounded by 5 neighbouring countries and bisected by the equator. Despite a checkered history, Uganda now boasts an active tourism market and has been listed as one of the top countries to visit in Africa. It’s title as “the Pearl of Africa” is well deserved, and you won’t regret immersing yourself in the culture, unforgettable terrain and incredible wildlife of this special country!