Kibale Forest National Park, together with the nearby Ngdali – Kasende Crater Lakes, are close to being an independent traveller’s dream, wonderful scenery and a remarkable variety of activities. The park is highly alluring to nature lovers for the opportunity to view a wide range of forest birds and track chimpanzees (as well as viewing a wide range of other primates). Though the scenic appeal of the region remains undiminished, the rising cost of chimp tracking.
Gazetted in October 1993, the 766 km squared Kibale Forest National Park extends southwards from Fort portal to form a contiguous block with the Queen Elizabeth National Park. Interspersed with patches of grassland and swamp, the dominant vegetation type is rainforest, spanning altitudes of 1,100-1,590m and with a floral composition transitional to typical eastern Afromontane and western lowland forest.
At least 60 mammal species are present in Kibale Forest. It is particularly rich in primates, with 13 species recorded, the highest total for any Ugandan national park. The nine diurnal primates found at Kibale are vervet, red-tailed, L’Hoest’s and blue monkeys, grey-cheeked mangabey, red colobus, black-and-white colobus, olive baboon, and chimpanzee. The Kibale forest area is the last Ugandan stronghold of the red colobus, although small numbers still survive in Semliki National Park. Visitors who both the forest and the swamp walks can typically expect to see around five or six primate species.
Kibale Forest offers superlative primate viewing, but it is not otherwise an easy place to see large mammals, this despite an impressive checklist which includes: elephant, buffalo, hippo, warthog, giant forest hog, bushpigs, bushbuck, sitatunga, and peter’s,red and blue duikers. The elephants found in Kibale Forest are classified as belongings to the forest race, which is smaller and hairier than the more familiar savanna elephant. Elephants frequently move into the Kanyanchu area during the wet season, but they are not often seen by tourists.
Roughly 335 bird species have been recorded in any other national park: Nahan’s francolin, Cassin’s spine tail, blue-headed bee-eater and masked apalis. Otherwise, the checklist for Kibale includes a similar range of forest birds to Semliki National Park, with the exclusion of the 40-odd Semliki ‘specials’ and the inclusion of a greater variety of water and grassland species. A recent first sighting of a green-breasted pitta caused some excitement in Uganda ornithological circles, while the truly optimistic might want to look out for prigogine’s ground thrush, a presumably endemic species or race collected once in the 1960’s and yet to be seen again.
The best bird watching spot is the Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary, where a four-hour trail has been laid out and experienced guides will be able to show you several localized species which you might otherwise overlook. The cost of the visitation fee is more than any other park, a consideration when planning your itinerary, given the additional attractions just outside the park. It obviously doesn’t make sense to pay for park entrance and check into park accommodation then, with the 24-hour clock ticking, head off for out-of-park bird watching in the Kihingami and Magombe swamps near Sebitoli and Kanyanchu respectively. No park fee is charged for passing through the park on the Fort portal-Kamwenge road, for staying at the guesthouses in and around Bigodi, or for visiting the Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary.
Things to Do in Kibale Forest National Park
The most popular activity in the national park is the guided chimp-tracking excursion out of Kanyanchu. Almost as popular is the guided walking trail through the Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary, which is probably better for general monkey viewing and one of the finest birding trails in the country. There is also plenty of potential for unguided exploration in the area, both along the main road through the forest, and around Bigodi Trading Centre and Kanyanchu Camp. If time is limited, it’s advisable to do the activity that most interests you in the morning, this is not only the best time to see chimpanzees, but also when birds are most active.
Guided Forest Walks
A highlight of any activity to Kibale Forest will be the chimp-tracking excursions that leave from Kanyanchu at 8:00 and 14:00 daily. Chimp sightings are not guaranteed on these walks, but the odds of encountering them have improved greatly in recent years, and now stand around 90%. The chimpanzee community, whose territory centers on Kanyanchu, is well habituated, with the result that visitors can often approach to within a few meters of them. Whilst in the forest you can expect to see at least two or three other types of primate, most probably grey-cheeked mangabey and red-tailed monkey. You will hear plenty of birdsong, but it’s very difficult to see any birds in the heart of the forest. You are better off looking for them in the rest camp and along the road. The guides are knowledgeable and will identify various medical plants, bird calls and animal spoor.
For dedicated chimp enthusiasts or aspiring researchers seeking field experience, which involves staying with the chimps all day with habituators and taking notes on their behavior. Another novelty is a guided night walk with spotlights, which runs from 19.30 to 22.00 daily and offers a good chance of sighting nocturnal primates such as the bush baby and potto.
Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary
This small sanctuary which protects the Magombe Swamp, adjacent to Bigodi trading centre and immediately outside the national park boundary, is and admirable example of conservation and tourism having a direct benefit at grassroots level. Run by the Kibale Association for Rural and Environment Development (KAFRED), all money raised from the trail is used in community projects in Bigodi, it has so far funded the creation of a small local library as well as the construction of a new secondary school in the village. The guided 4.5km circular trail through the swamp is also one of the best guided bird trails in east Africa, as well as offering a realistic opportunity to see up to six different primate species in the space of a few hours. The trail starts at the KAFRED office on the Fort Portal side of Bigodi. Here a visitor is allocated a guide; a serious birdwatcher should mention their special interest, since some guides are better at identifying birds than others and if you don’t have a field guide and binoculars, then make sure your guide does. Afternoon walks technically start at 15:00 and generally take around three hours, but dedicated birders will need longer and are advised to get going an hour earlier, there are enough guides for you to start whenever you like. For morning walks, it is worth getting to the office as early as you can, or possibly even arranging a dawn start a day in advance. The trail is very muddy in parts, and if you don’t have good walking shoes, then you would do well to hire a pair of gumboots from the KAFRED office. For general monkey viewing, it doesn’t matter greatly whether you go in the morning or afternoon, but birders should definitely aim to do the morning walk. The sanctuary’s main attraction to ornithologists is quality rather than quantity. You would be lucky to identify more than 40 species in one walk, but most of these will be forest-fringe and swamp specials, and a good number will be West African species at the eastern limit of their range. There are other places in Uganda where these birds can be seen, but not in the company of local guides who know the terrain intimately and can identify even the most troublesome greenbuls by sight or call. One of the birds most strongly associated with the swamp is the greater blue turaco, which will be seen by most visitors. Another specialty is the papyrus gonolek, likely to be heard before it is seen, and most frequently encountered along the main road as it crosses the swamp or from the wooden walkway about halfway along the trail. Other regularly seen birds include grey-throated, yellow-billed, yellow spotted and double-toothed barbets, speckled, yellow-rumped and yellow throated tinker-barbets, yellowbill, brown-eared woodpecker, blue-throated roller, grey parrot, bronze sunbird, black-crowned waxbill, grey-headed Negro-finch, swamp flycatcher, red-capped and snowy-headed robin-chats, grosbeak and northern brown-throated weavers, and black-and-white casqued hornbill.
Butterflies are abundant in the swamp, and it is also home to sitatunga antelope, serval, a variety of mongoose and most of the primate species recorded in the forest. The red colobus is the most common monkey, often seen at close quarters, but you are also likely to observe red-tailed monkey, L’Hoest’s monkey, black-and-white colobus and grey-cheeked mangabey. If you are extremely fortunate, you might even see chimpanzees, since they occasionally visit the swamp to forage for fruit.
Tourists are forbidden to walk along forest paths or in Magombe swamp without a guide, but they are free to walk unguided elsewhere. Kanyanchu itself is worth a couple of hours’ exploration. A colony of Viellot’s black weaver nests in the camp, while flowering trees attract a variety of forest sunbirds. You can also expect to see or hear several types of robin and greenbul, often difficult to tell apart unless you get a good look at them. A specialty of the camp is the localized red-chested paradise flycatcher, a stunning bird that’s very easy to find once you know its call. Other interesting birds seen there regularly at Kanyanchu are the great blue turaco, hairy-breasted barbet, black-necked weaver and black-and-white casqued hornbill. The short, self-guided grassland trail which circles the camp is good for monkeys. It is permitted to walk unguided along the stretch of the main road between Fort portal and Kamwenge as it runs through the forest. The most interesting section on this road is the first few kilometres running north towards Fort portal from Kanyanchu, where you are almost certain to see a variety of monkeys, genuine forest birds such as Sabine’s spinetail, blue-breasted kingfisher and Afep pigeon, as well as butterflies in their hundreds gathered around puddles and streams. The road south from Kanyanchu to Bigodi passes through a variety of habitats, forest patches, swamp and grassland and is also productive for birds and monkeys.
Sebitoli and the Kihingami Wetlands
Sebitoli lies inside the northern part of Kibale forest national park. It is little visited, which is a shame, since it is conveniently located just metres off the main Fort portal-Kampala road and is far easier to reach than Kanyanchu. Sebitoli development opened in 2002 to help ease tourist’s pressure on the Kanyanchu sector of the park. It offers similar activities and facilities to Kanyanchu, with the exception of chimpanzee tracking, and is far more accessible for day trippers from Fort portal. Guided forest walks offer a good chance of seeing red and black-and-white colobus and blue and vervet monkey, as well as a varied selection of the (rapidly expanding ) local checklist of 236 bird species, chimpanzees are present in the area but not habituated. Guided walking or cycling tours to the nearby Kihingami wetlands outside the park offer excellent bird watching and a visit to local tea estates, and leave daily.