Top challenges facing the mountain gorillas (in Uganda, Rwanda & Congo)

Gorillas found killed in Virunga National Park in DR Congo. Photo copyright: ALTOR IGCP GOMA/AP

The Mountain Gorillas are one of the 4 subspecies of the gorillas that exist in the world. The other three being the Western Lowland, Cross River, and Grauer’s gorillas. All are found on the African continent

The mountain gorillas, famous for gorilla trekking tours, are found in the Virunga mountains (shared between Uganda, Rwanda & Democratic Republic of Congo) and Bwindi montane forest (in Uganda). A few decades ago, the mountain gorillas were on the way to extinction with less than 600 individuals left. But it is because of the increased awareness and conservation efforts (championed by Dian Fossey in the 1980s) that there has been a turnaround from extinction to growing numbers and currently there are more than 1000+ mountain gorillas. At the moment the mountain gorilla population is growing at 4% per year.

According to the Gorilla Doctors, an organization engaged in the conservation of the gorillas gives the following as the top challenges facing the mountains gorillas (human caused).

  • Loss of habitat

This is one the biggest challenges of the gorillas. With a spike in the population of humans, pressure has been exerted on the habitats of the gorillas as people have cleared vast forests and lands to settle and grow crops.

It is surprising to learn that the two mountain gorilla homes Bwindi forest and the Virunga mountains were once a continuous jungle but the humans erased the forests until Bwindi forest was left isolated.

  • Human – gorilla conflict

Due to the diminished gorilla habitat, the gorillas tend to go beyond their jungle into the neighboring farmlands and communities looking food in period of scarcity in the forest. This causes friction with the people and gorillas are hurt or fall into the hands of wildlife traffickers.

  • Poaching and bush meat trade

Poachers set up snares in the gorilla parks targeting other animals such as antelopes but gorillas all in these traps leading to serious injuries and even death to the gorillas.

While Ugandan and Rwandans do not eat primate meat, however Congolese tribes neighboring the Virunga mountains do have primates on their menu and gorillas are therefore hunted for meat.

  • Emerging diseases and treatment of the wild

Gorillas and humans share 98.4% DNA, hence these species can catch the same diseases. As gorillas have been getting closer to humans the risk of gorillas being infect by new diseases has increased. Recently gorillas have been found to suffer from known human diseases. For instance the Nkuringo gorilla family in Bwindi National Park was found to suffer from scabies that was traced back to a human family near the park.

Gorilla tourism has also increased the risk spreading diseases from the rangers habituating the gorillas or the tourists during the gorilla tracking.

The Buganda Royal Tourism Circuit

The Buganda Royal Tourism Circuit is a cultural as well as historical trail in Kampala City that has been launched by the Buganda Heritage & Tourism Board, a body responsible for tourism development in the Buganda Kingdom. Buganda is the gateway to Uganda and Buganda gave Uganda her name. When you fly into Uganda, you arrive through Buganda and therefore before continuing on your trip to trip in Uganda, a tour of this circuit will introduce you to the history and culture of Buganda and Uganda. You can include the circuit or part of it on a Kampala City tour.

The circuit revolves around the location of what are/were the core administration units of the 1000 year Buganda kingdom; which is the Kabaka’s palace where the kabaka (kabaka is the title given the king of Buganda) resided, the Bulange building which houses the Lukiiko – the parliament of the Buganda kingdom, and the residence of the Katikiro (Butikiro) i.e. the prime minister. Residences of other then powerful agents or call them ministers of Kabaka are still intact and preserve a rich history of Buganda and Uganda.

The tour along the circuit gives you an opportunity to delve into the impeccable organization structure (political and cultural) of the Buganda kingdom. It is little wonder that the colonial British were blown away by a political organization so well structured & organized and somewhat similar to theirs, a grassroot based system, that Uganda was not declared a colony like their many other countries. It was declared a protectorate and the Buganda kingdom’s structures were used by the British to govern and conquer the rest of Uganda.

You walking tour of the Buganda Royal Tourism Circuit will take you to the following sites:

Bulange – Buganda Parliament

 

The walk starts at Bulange. Bulange houses the Lukiiko which is the parliament of the Buganda, and the Kabaka’s work place.

In the compound of Bulange building is a small souvenir shop that has been named the “cultural corner”. The cultural corner has an array of traditional items that were used back in the day before modernity in the day to day lives of the people such as omweso, bark cloth, local drums, etc…

The Royal Mile and the clans of Buganda

The royal mile is a straight path exactly one mile long from the gate of the Bulange to the gate of the Kabaka’s palace.

After exiting Bulange you will set out to walk the 1 mile to the Palace just like the Kabaka’s used to do back in the day.

This 1 mile walk on the royal mile is a very interesting journey through Buganda history and culture that you will learn; the mile is lined by 56 trees (kabaka anjagala) which represent the 56 clans of Buganda. Buganda kingdom is a clan-based society. You will learn about the different clans and their different roles in the Kingdom as well as their totems.

Along the mile are also important houses or buildings that date back since the 1800s, one such includes the first storied building in Uganda, Butikiro which was the official residence of the Katikiro (prime minister) etc…

Ntawetwa – the King does not bend

Ntawetwa is a roundabout at a junction along the Royal mile which was modified with a continuous passage of the royal mile through the round-about with a gate that is only opened for the Kabaka. This was done so that the Kabaka does not go round the roundabout since he is not supposed to face any obstacle on his way from the palace to bulange and back. It is a very interesting structure on the royal mile.

Kabaka’s Palace

You will eventually arrive at the elegant Kabaka’s Palace on Mengo hill.

The Kabaka’s Palace was the official residence of the king of Buganda. The Palace gate is exactly 1 mile from the Bulange gate.

You will learn how the palace came to be built on this hill and who were the original occupants of this hill.

Take in the beautiful architecture and walk around the royal grounds. A wreckage of one the Kabaka Mutesa’s cars a Daimler is on display in the compound.

The palace is well situated on Mengo hill that commands 360 degree views over Kampala City. It is not hard to see why the then Kabaka decided to move the palace here. And also probably why the hill was victim of military contestations by previous military governments who raided the palace and captured the hill that provides fire superiority over all Kampala.

Amin’s Torture chamber

Inside the Palace is the infamous torture chamber where Amin brought political victims and suspected rebels for interrogation and execution.

When Amin took over the palace and turned it into a military post in the 1970’s he invited the Israels to build him an armory which they did.

After a few months he turned it into an interrogation and torture chamber where it is believe more than then thousand victims faced their death.

Kabaka’s lake (Kayanja)

Once the palace visit is over you shall walk down to the Kabaka’s lake to refresh and shake off the sad mood after torture chamber story

The Kabaka’s lake is one of the few known man-made lakes in the world. And what is even more special is that it was dug with rudimentary digging tools.

The lake was made by the youthful Kabaka Mwanga who wanted a channel of water from the palace connecting to Lake Victoria which he enjoyed visiting. The channel would serve for recreation but also a route for easy escape via Lake Victoria in case the palace was to be attacked.

The Royal Certificate

When you visit all the sites along the tourism circuit you are rewarded with a Royal Certificate

World Migratory Bird Day 2021 in Uganda at Lutembe Bay

World Migratory Bird Day (WMBD) is a day that is dedicated to migratory birds awareness and in this year 2021 it has been celebrated on 8th May. Migratory birds are faced with challenges along their migratory paths such as hunting, poisoning, and degradation of stopover points. WMBD in Africa is helping to sensitize the local population about the migration of birds and many locals are surprised to learn that many of the birds they see during certain times of the year are visitors coming from as far as Europe. The people are sensitized on the importance of the migratory birds, and the need to conserve them and their habitats.

Uganda, which hosts many Palearctic & Afrotropical migrant birds, joined the rest of the world in recognizing and celebrating the World Migratory Bird Day. The day was well attended by several groups and individuals with Nature Uganda taking the lead in coordinating and organizing the day’s activities intended to draw attention to the migratory birds.

Nature Uganda organized a birding excursion to Lutembe Wetland on Lake Victoria which is one of the 9 Ramsar sites in Uganda. There would not have been a better place than Lutembe wetland for this day because the wetland hosts many migrant birds but it is also under immense threat for destruction from encroachment and illegal activities. A lot of the habitats around the wetland have been razed for agriculture and settlements, and commercial flower growing along the lake shore has seen dangerous chemicals being released into the wetland.

We met up at Lutembe early in the morning. Among the participants included Ugandan bird guides and tour operators who benefit a lot from selling birding in Uganda tours, members from the local community near Lutembe who take the lead in destroying or protecting the wetland, Civil Aviation Authority from Entebbe International Airport which shares the same ecosystem on Lake Victoria, and importantly students from university who represent the young and custodians of the future of conservation.

Birding at Lutembe covers water and land habitats and therefore the group was divided into two, one group birding on water and another on land with the two groups to meet later and combine one list.

Personally, I wanted to see what gulls, terns and other migrant water birds were still present given that many Palearctic migrants have already left by April, so I decided to join the water group. We set off in a motorized canoe and we birded the fringes first, scanning the papyrus where we spotted many Northern Brown Throated Weavers, and Swamp Flycatchers, Village Weavers, Striated Heron, Malachite Kingfisher, a Sedge Warbler (a Paleartic migrant), Purple Heron, Yellow-billed Ducks, White-faced Whistling Ducks, and Long-tailed Cormorants. We even heard the elusive Papyrus Gonolek and played its call but it refused to come out of hiding. We proceeded to the small islands of mudflats and found small flocks of Grey-head headed and Black-headed Gulls were still present, in addition to Whiskered, White-winged Terns and Gull-billed Terns, Common Ringed Plovers, Common Greenshank, Little Egrets, Great Egret, Great Cormorant. The highlight for the group was witnessing the Osprey diving for a fish that it struggled to fly away with as it was quite sizeable.

Once we returned after two hours birding on the lake another shift from the lake group set out into the lake but a few minutes later it started pouring and interrupting the day which started off so well… The heavy downpour didn’t stop for several hours and unfortunately brought at an early end to the World Migratory Bird Day activities at Lutembe.

Should you track gorillas in Bwindi forest or Mgahinga volcanoes? Where should you track gorillas in Uganda? Bwindi or Mgahinga?

Did you know that there are two parks in Uganda where the popular gorilla trekking activity is done in Uganda? The most popular park is Bwindi Impenetrable National Park which accounts for most of the gorilla tracking in Uganda. The other park that is less popular is Mgahinga Gorilla National Park which is Uganda’s part of the magnificent Virunga mountains that cut across the three countries of Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo.

Most tourists booking a gorilla trip in Uganda will request to trek in the Bwindi Impenetrable which has been more popularized but this is not surprising because Bwindi has the highest number of mountain gorillas of all the parks and also has the most habituated gorilla groups available for tourism, about 20 of them. Mgahinga gorilla national park on the other hand has just one resident habituated gorilla group called Nyakagezi, and occasionally Hirwa group will cross over from Rwanda’s volcanoes national park but will return after a couple of months. Nyakagezi group also has a tendence of visiting Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo, but it has not left Mgahinga since 2012.

Why you would trek in Bwindi over Mgahinga

The many gorilla groups in Bwindi give you more options of groups to choose from. For example you may want a group with many members, or may prefer a group that offers an easier trek i.e. found closer to the trailhead so that you don’t trek for long.

Why you would trek in Mgahinga over Bwindi

Mgahinga offers an epic backdrop of the Virunga mountains, a big bonus to your gorilla trek for you to experience the famous Virunga mountains as well. The vegetation is also not as dense as the aptly named Bwindi impenetrable and therefore great for photography due to good light.

Trekking in Mgahinga is similar to gorilla trekking in Rwanda since the mountains are shared on the border. If therefore your dream was to have the gorilla trip Rwanda but can’t afford the hefty permit cost ($1500) then you can just cross over border at Cyanika and do the gorilla trekking on the other side of the mountains in Mgahinga National Park where the permit costs $700

Are the gorillas of Bwindi forest the same as those of the Virunga mountains?

Yes of course!

There is a myth, call it a rumor, that claims mountain gorillas in Bwindi are different species from those in the Virungas but this has not been declared by the scientists and should be treated as lazy propaganda