Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is located in southwestern Uganda in East Africa. The park is part of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, and is situated along the Democratic Republic of Congo border next to the Virunga National Park and on the edge of the Albertine Rift. It comprises 331 square kilometres (128 sq mi) of jungle forests and contains both montane and lowland forest and is accessible only on foot. The Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site.
The forest is one of the richest ecosystems in Africa, and the diversity of species is a feature of the park. The park provides habitat for some 120 species of mammals, 348 species of birds, 220 species of butterflies, 27 species of frogs, chameleons, geckos and many endangered species. Floristically Bwindi is amongst the most diverse forests in East Africa, with more than 1,000 flowering plant species including 163 species of trees and 104 species of ferns. The northern (low altitude) sector is rich in species of the Guineo-Congolian flora. These include two species internationally recognized as endangered, Brown mahogany (Lovoa swynnertonii) and Brazzeia longipedicellata. In particular the area shares in the high levels of endemism of the Albertine Rift.
The park is a sanctuary for Columbus monkeys, chimpanzees and many birds (such as hornbills and Turaco). It is perhaps most notable for the 400 Bwindi gorillas, half the world’s population of the critically endangered mountain gorillas. There are ten habituated mountain gorilla groups open to tourism: Mubare; Habinyanja; Rushegura near Buhoma side; and the Nkuringo group, Busingye, Kahungye, Nshongi, Mishaya, and Bweza at Nkuringo side, Bitukura, and Oruzogo at Ruhija side and then the Kyaguriro group for research.
In 1932, two blocks of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest were designated as Crown Forest Reserves. The Northern block was designated as the “Kayonza Crown Forest Reserve,” and the Southern block designated as the “Kasatora Crown Forest Reserve.” These reserves had a combined area of 207 square kilometres (80 sq mi). In 1942, the two Crown Forest Reserves were combined and enlarged, and renamed the Impenetrable Central Crown Forest. This new protected area covered an area of 298 square kilometres (115 sq mi) and was under the joint control of the Ugandan government’s game and forest departments.
In 1964, the reserve was designated as an animal sanctuary in order to provide extra protection to its mountain gorillas and renamed the Impenetrable Central Forest Reserve. In 1966, two other forest reserves became part of the main reserve, increasing its area to almost 321 square kilometres (124 sq mi). The park continued to be managed as both a game sanctuary and forest reserve.
In 1991, Impenetrable Central Forest Reserve—along with Mgahinga Gorilla Reserve and Rwenzori Mountains Reserve—was designated as a national park and renamed Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. It covered an area of 330.8 square kilometres (127.7 sq mi). The national park was declared in part to protect a range of species within it, most notably the mountain gorilla. The reclassification of the park has a large impact on the Batwa pygmy people, who were evicted from the forest and no longer permitted to enter the park or access its resources. Gorilla trekking became a tourist activity in April 1993, and the park became a popular tourist destination. In 1994, a 10-square-kilometre (3.9 sq mi) area was incorporated into the park. In 1994, it was inscribed on the World Heritage List. The park’s management changed: Uganda National Parks, since renamed Uganda Wildlife Authority, became responsible for the park. In 2003 a piece of land next to the park with an area of 4.2 square kilometres (1.6 sq mi) was purchased and incorporated into the park.
In March 1999, a force of 100-150 former Rwandan Interahamwe guerrillas infiltrated across the border from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and kidnapped 14 foreign tourists and their Ugandan guide from the park headquarters, eventually releasing 6 and murdering the remaining 8 with machetes and clubs; several victims were reportedly tortured, at least one of the female victims was raped, and the Ugandan guide was doused with gasoline and lit on fire. The Interahamwe attack was reportedly intended to “destabilize Uganda” and frighten away tourist traffic from the park, depriving the Ugandan government of vital income. The park was forced to close for several months and the popularity of the gorilla tours suffered badly for several years, though attendance has since recovered due to greater stability in the area. An armed guard also now accompanies every tour group.
Geography and climate
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is located in southwestern Uganda. The Democratic Republic of Congo borders the western side of the park. It covers an area of 331 square kilometres (128 sq mi). Kabale town to the southeast is the nearest main town to the park, 29 kilometres (18 mi) away by road. The park comprises two blocks of forest that are connected by a small corridor of forest. The shape of the park is a legacy of previous conservation management, when the original two forest blocks were protected in 1932. There is agricultural land where there were previously trees directly outside the park’s borders. Cultivation in this area is intense.
The park’s underlying geology consists of Precambrian shale phyllite, quartz, quartzite, schist and granite. The park is located at the edge of the Western Rift Valley in the highest parts of the Kigezi Highlands, which were created by up-warping of the Western Rift Valley. Its topography is very rugged, with narrow valleys intersected by rivers and steep hills. Altitudes in the Park Range from 1,190 to 2,607 metres (3,900 to 8,553 ft) above sea level, and 60% of the park have an elevation of over 2,000 metres (6,600 ft). The highest elevation in the park is Rwamunyonyi hill at the eastern edge of the park. The lowest part of the park is located at its most northern tip.
The forest is an important water catchment area. With a generally impermeable underlying geology where water mostly flows through large fault structures, water infiltration and aquifers are limited. Much of the park’s rainfall forms streams, and the forest has quite a dense network of streams. The forest is the source of many rivers that flow to the north, west, and south. Major rivers that rise in the park include the Ivi, Munyaga, Ihihizo, Ishasha, and Ntengyere rivers, which flow into Lake Edward. Other rivers flow into Lakes Mutanda and Bunyonyi. Bwindi supplies water to local agricultural areas.
Bwindi has a tropical climate. Annual mean temperature ranges from a minimum of 7–15°C to a maximum of 20–27°C. Its annual rainfall ranges from 1,400 to 1,900 millimeters (55 to 75 in). Peak rainfall occurs from March to April and from September to November. The park’s forest plays an important role in regulating the outside area’s environment and climate. High amounts of evapotranspiration from the forest’s vegetation increases the amount of precipitation that the region outside the park receives. They also lessen soil erosion, which is a serious problem in southwestern Uganda. They lessen flooding and ensure that streams continue to flow in the dry season.
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is old, complex, and very biologically rich. Diverse species are a feature of the park, and it became an UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its ecological importance. Among East African forests, Bwindi has some of the richest populations of trees, small mammals, birds, butterflies, reptiles, and moths. The park’s diverse species are partly a result of the large variations of altitude and habitat types in the park, and may also be because the forest was a refuge for species during glaciations in the Pleistocene epoch.
The park’s forests are afro-montane, which is a rare vegetation type on the African continent. Located where plain and mountain forests meet, there is a continuum of low-altitude to high altitude primary forests in the park, one of the few large tracts of East African forest where this occurs. The park has more than 220 tree species, (more than 50% of Uganda’s tree species) and more than 100 fern species. The Brown Mahogany is a threatened plant species found within the park.
Primates and birds
Bwindi is thought to have one of the richest faunal communities in East Africa. There are an estimated 120 mammal species in the park, ten of which are primates, and more than 45 of which are small mammal species. The park is important for the conservation of afro-montane fauna, especially species endemic to the western rift valley’s mountains. Along with mountain gorillas, species in the park include the common chimpanzee, L’Hoest’s monkey, African elephant, African Green Broadbill, and Cream-banded Swallowtail, black and white Columbus, red-tailed monkeys, vervets, the giant forest hog, and small antelope species. There occur many carnivores, include the side-striped jackal, African golden cat and African civet. The park has more than 350 bird species and more than 200 butterfly species. The fish species in the park’s rivers and streams are not well known.
The park is inhabited by a population of about 340 individual mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei), known as the Bwindi population, which makes up almost half of all the mountain gorillas in the world. The rest of the worldwide mountain gorilla population is in the nearby Virunga National Park. A 2006 census of the mountain gorilla population in the park showed that its numbers had increased modestly from an estimated 300 individuals in 1997 to 320 individuals in 2002 to 340 individuals in 2006 and now 400 species. Disease and habitat loss are the greatest threat to the gorillas. Poaching is also a threat.
Research on the Bwindi population lags behind that of the Virunga National Park population, but some preliminary research on the Bwindi gorilla population has been carried out by Craig Stanford. This research has shown that the Bwindi gorilla’s diet is markedly higher in fruit than that of the Virunga population, and that the Bwindi gorillas, even silverbacks, are more likely to climb trees to feed on foliage, fruits, and epiphytes. In some months, Bwindi gorilla diet is very similar to that of Bwindi chimpanzees. It was also found that Bwindi gorillas travel further per day than Virunga gorillas, particularly on days when feeding primarily on fruit than when they are feeding on fibrous foods. Additionally, Bwindi gorillas are much more likely to build their nests in trees, nearly always in Echizogwa, a small understory tree.
Mountain gorillas are an endangered species, with an estimated total population of about 650 individuals. There are no mountain gorillas in captivity. In the 1960s and 1970s, mountain gorillas were captured in order to begin a population of them in captive facilities. No baby gorillas survived in captivity and no mountain gorillas are known of that are currently in captivity.
The park is owned by the Uganda Wildlife Authority, a parastatal government body. The park has total protection, although communities adjacent to the park can access some of its resources.
The areas bordering the park have a high population density of more than 300 people per square kilometer. Some of the people who live in these areas are among the poorest people in Uganda. The high population and poor agricultural practices place a great deal of pressure on Bwindi forest, and are one of the biggest threats to the park. 90% of the people are dependent on subsistence agriculture, as agriculture is one of the area’s few ways of earning income.
Prior to Bwindi’s gazetting as a national park in 1991, the park was designated as a forest reserve and regulations about the right to access the forest were more liberal and not often enforced. Local people hunted, mined, logged, pit sawed, and kept bees in the park. It was gazetted as a national park in 1991 because of its rich biodiversity and threats to the integrity of the forest. Its designation as a national park gave the park higher protection status. State agencies increased protection and control of the park. Adjacent communities’ access to the forest immediately ended. This closing of access caused large amounts of resentment and conflict among these local communities and park authorities. The Batwa, a group that has relied on the forest, were badly affected The Batwa fished, harvested wild yams, wild honey and their ancestral sites were located in the park. Despite the Batwa people historical claim to land rights and having lived in the area for generations without destroying the area’s ecosystem, they did not benefit from any national compensation scheme when they were evicted. Non-Batwa farmers who had cut down the forested areas in order to cultivate them, received compensation and their land rights were recognized. People have lost livestock and crops from wildlife, and there have been some human deaths. The habituation of gorillas to humans in order to facilitate tourism may have increased the damage they do to local people’s property because their fear of people has decreased.
Tourists can visit the park any time throughout the year, although conditions in the park are more difficult during the rainy season. Available tourist accommodation includes a lodge, tented camps, and cheaper rooms run by the local community, located near the Buhoma entrance gate. The park is in a remote location, and reaching the park involves a long difficult journey. Roads are in a bad condition. Bwindi Community Hospital provides health care to 40,000 people in the area and to visiting tourists.
Gorilla tracking is the park’s main tourist attraction. Tourists wishing to track gorillas must first obtain a permit to do so. Selected gorillas families have been habituated to human presence and the number of visitors is tightly controlled to prevent degradation of the habitat and risks to the gorillas. Gorilla tracking generates much revenue for Uganda Wildlife Authority. The gorillas seldom react to tourists. There are strict rules for tourists to minimize the risk of diseases passing from them to the gorillas. Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo are the only countries where it is possible to visit mountain gorillas. Guided walks through the forest include a walk to a waterfall, and walks for monkey watching and birding.