Is Uganda safe for tourists?

Is Uganda safe? This is one of the most crucial questions that finally determines whether a tourist will have Uganda in his or her African safari vacation, included mostly for the famous gorilla tracking adventures and chimpanzee trekking experiences in the beautiful jungles.

Very many tourists do not believe Uganda is safe and do not bother to include it on their itineraries (opting for Rwanda gorillas if gorilla trekking was the reason for thinking of visiting Uganda). While, many other tourists are not sure but are overcome by the adventure bug and the curiosity to discover this country referred to as the Pearl of Africa, and so they simply take a leap of faith hoping they will be safe.

Uganda is a big recipient of bad publicity and this is largely due to the huge media freedom which perhaps you cannot find in other African countries. So, each and every misfortunate (faced by almost every country) of Uganda finds itself out there, thereby painting a picture of a country that is not safe.

Uganda is also not helped by her location in a region marred by conflicts and epidemics. Whatever happens in the Congo and South Sudan, discourages many tourists from visiting Uganda who do not think Uganda is any safe.

In this blog I will enlighten you on the safety and security situation of Uganda and how to keep safe when you are a tourist in Uganda

Again, is Uganda safe for tourists?

The answer is Yes, Uganda is safe for tourists. To put it into perspective, more than one million tourists visit Uganda each year and this number is increasing exponentially as more people discover that Uganda is in fact very safe. Uganda for long has larked in the shadow of its tumultuous past of civil wars and bad leaders, so much that many people still believe the dictator Idi Amin is still the president of Uganda, a man that died decades ago.

For more than 15 years now Uganda has enjoyed peace with no war going on in her land. President Museveni’s government has built a formidable military that has effectively protected the country from insecurity both from within and without.

What are the concerning security and safety situations to look out for and how to stay safe in Uganda?

Petty crimes

Petty crimes including pickpocketing, car break-ins, phone snatching and mugging would be your biggest safety concern in Uganda. But these are more rampant in the bustling cities, more so in the capital Kampala City in congested spaces of the city and in the ghettos.

This calls for maximum vigilance.

Observe the following as SOPs to safeguard against petty crimes;

  • Do not use your phone while in the congested place within the city. Smartphone are the most targeted items by petty thieves in Uganda as they are easy to sell off.
  • Do not leave your phone unattended to, if not using it put it in your pocket.
  • Always have your window glasses up when driving through the city or simply do not use your phone or have any easy to pick valuables near an open window
  • Ensure your car doors are locked when traveling
  • Do not display a lot of money in public
  • Do not expose your wallet or money purse, keep it hidden as much as possible. A pocket with a zipper would be the ideal.
  • Do not keep valuables such as phone, money, camera, passport, etc… in the car
  • Do not leave money, passports and devices such as phone and camera in your hotel room when going out. If there is a safe in the room keep the valuables you can’t carry with you in a safe
  • Avoid walking alone in the night

Road accidents

Road accidents is perhaps the number one threat to a tourist’s life in Uganda. Uganda has one of the highest rates of accidents in Africa. Lack of discipline by road users, poor roads, and poor cars are some of the factors causing accidents.

  • Ensure you are driven by a professional tourist driver and that he or she must follow the traffic rules.
  • Ensure you are driving or being driven in car without any mechanical problems. Car should be properly serviced. In fact I encourage you to use the 4X4 tourist vehicles.
  • Avoid traveling on the motorcycle taxis popularly called “boda boda”. They are the most reckless of road users and account for most road accidents in the cities.
  • When crossing a busy road in the city, please take enormous care and especially look out for the reckless “boda boda” motorcycle taxis who don’t follow any traffic rules. They will come from any direction of the road even on a one-way traffic street.

Political unrest and riots

Elections in Uganda are an intense affair that often sees riots and clashes between opposition and the government forces, especially in the cities and towns. There is a level of lawlessness during this time and often lives and property are lost. This is however a short period. Tourists are never targeted, however some individuals could take advantage of the confusion to carry out robberies. When planning your trip perhaps you can avoid the presidential elections time. Otherwise, if you come during this time be vigilant and avoid any areas with political rallies and processions. Avoid the cities all together.

Kidnaping tourists

Kidnapping tourists for ransom had never happened in Uganda until the April of 2019 when two tourists were kidnapped while out in the bush in Queen Elizabeth National Park. The tourists were never harmed and were released after negotiations and ransom was paid to the kidnappers. Queen Elizabeth National Park borders the Democratic Republic of Congo which is a hotspot of insurgencies and lawlessness. The kidnapers indeed originated from the D.R. Congo. The government has since reinforced security along the border with DR Congo and within the park.

This kidnap of tourists in Uganda can be treated as a one-off incidence that cannot easily happen again, so you should not be worried about being kidnapped while in Uganda.

Joseph Kony

Joseph Kony is a notorious rebel leader whose rebel outfit (LRA) terrorized northern Uganda for years. He was eventually flushed out of Uganda and pursued till he posed no threat to Uganda. Some tourists do still believe Kony is still in Uganda causing mayhem, however this is not true.

Be assured there is no threat of Joseph Kony in Uganda anymore!!

Regions or areas of safety concern

North eastern Uganda – Karimojong cattle rustling corridor

Home to the Kidepo Valley National Park and other remarkable wildlife reserves, this is the remotest of Uganda’s regions that was for long off the tourist circuit because of the insecurity. The insecurity was due to the cattle rustling tradition practiced by the cattle keeping tribes of this region. This region is home to the famous Karimojong people as one of the local tribes in the area. Tribes in this region had been practicing cattle rustling which is a tradition of stealing cows from each. The communities throughout the region were heavily armed with guns for cattle rustling and protection from cattle rustling. The region was basically inaccessible unless if one went with a military convoy as everyone would be targeted. Operations were undertaken by the government to disarm the region and for more than 6 years now one can travel to the region and enjoy the magnificent landscape and rare wildlife.

However, once in a while cattle rustling clashes between communities are reported. They are promptly taken care of by the military. It is therefore advised to find out the situation in the region before traveling there.

Kasese near the Congo border

Kasese is home to Queen Elizabeth National Park and the Rwenzori mountains national park. The areas near the Congolese border, especially in the remote Ishasha area of Queen Elizabeth National Park can be of concern (this is where kidnap of tourists happened in 2019). There are frequent patrols by the army. However to avoid any surprises if you will be taking long watching animals in the bush, take an armed ranger guide provided by the park.

Kampala slums

Kampala slums harbor thugs, only venture there when you are in a group and better take a police escort for guaranteed security.

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.

How does the chimpanzee trekking compare with the gorilla trekking

The gorilla trekking/tracking is obviously the number one tour activity that majority tourists book to see primates in the African jungle. The chimpanzee trekking/tracking on the other hand is normally just an add-on and many tourists wonder whether it is any different from the gorilla trek and whether it is a worthwhile addition to the already expensive gorilla trekking. Afterall, they are all primates!! In fact, some tourists cannot properly differentiate a chimpanzee from the gorilla.

 
Which one is the gorilla & which one is the chimp? 🙂

Below I try to throw a bit of perspective to help you see how these two great apes with interesting wildlife experiences compare and help you decide whether you should do one over the other, or do both of them.

Meeting up with the gorillas and chimps – character & organization

The Mountain Gorillas are big and have an intimidating look, but they are so gentle and shy, nothing like the aggressive “King Kong” gorilla portrayed in the movies. You will find the gorillas who live in relatively small tight families of about 8 – 15 individuals going about their business silently on the ground which is mostly feeding on vegetation, grooming each other and resting. It is the big silverback, the head of the family, that normally imposes himself in space to show who is boss and ensure no creature is getting too close to his members, while other members are mostly shy and retreating, always trying to get away from onlookers.

Chimpanzees are the opposite of the gorillas. Chimps are extremely active…and wild. Unlike gorillas that live in small family units keeping tightly together in a small area, the chimps live as a community of 100s of individuals occupying a large territory. They engage in loud vocalizations & the traditional thunderous hitting of tree barks to communicate with other members across the wide territory. Being in the midst of those vocalizations is quite hair-raising experience. They move swiftly, be it on ground or swinging from tree to tree and therefore need you to be on your toes almost all the time. Every member or group of members in the chimp community can engage in different activities giving you a diversity of views and experiences. You can decide to follow one member or group in the big community.

In a nutshell:

Meeting the gorillas can be likened to bumping into your favorite celebrity for the first time that leaves you astounded/starstruck, while meeting the chimp is like bumping into a long-lost crazy buddy who will treat to you to hearty laughter…

Comparing the trekking experience and the level of difficulty

The gorilla trekking level of difficulty is normally a concern because the mountain gorillas live in mountains covered in dense vegetation. It can be a difficult or easy hike to find the gorillas depending on their location, however after finding them the experience is much slower as the gorillas do not move very often and can stay in same area till you leave. On the other hand, the chimps are quite swift and can be quite a task following them up and down.

Verdict

I highly recommend combining these the gorilla trek and the chimpanzee tracking. Both of these tours can be done on trips in Uganda and trips in Rwanda.

What is the best time for gorilla trekking in Rwanda? Best time to see gorillas?

What is the best time to visit Rwanda for the gorilla tour? What is the best time for the gorilla trekking? What is the best time that will give me the best chance to see the gorillas?

These are common questions from tourists planning a gorilla trekking trip in Rwanda and Uganda. Gorilla trekking is number one on the list of top things to do in Rwanda.

What is the best time that will give you the best chance to see the gorillas? And the answer is simple:

ALL YEAR ROUND the gorillas can be seen.

BUT THE WEATHER…

However, the weather can have an effect on the level of difficulty of the gorilla trek (but not on the chances of finding the gorillas), and therefore you may choose to do the gorilla trek when it is easier to trek (or hardest to trek, for hiking fanatics) because the gorillas live in the rugged mountains densely covered in vegetation presenting a challenge for trekking. And of course, the mountains are easier to trek in dry conditions than in wet conditions.

There are two weather seasons in Rwanda, the WET/RAINY season (March – May & Sept – Oct) that sees frequent rains, and the DRY season (June – August & Dec – Feb) which sees more sunshine and less rains.

The most preferred time for the gorilla trek is during the long dry spell from June – August and a bit of September. The mountains do not receive frequent rains and so the trails are dry most of the time. There will be some occasional rains though. This can be taken as the best time for the gorilla tracking in Rwanda.

The wettest period is from March to May, with rains experienced almost on a daily during the peak rainy month of April. This is the least favorable time for the gorilla tracking adventure.

During the wet season however, the gorillas tend to leave the high elevations of the mountains because it is too cold and will retreat closer to the warmer altitudes towards the base of the mountains. During this time the gorillas may be easier to find 😊. The irony!

BEST TIME WITH NO CROWDS

Don’t want crowds??? There are fewer people tracking the gorillas during the wet season hence you have a more intimate encounter with the gorillas. We call this time of the year the low season because of low numbers of tourists. A number of lodges discount their prices (low season prices) and therefore it is the best time for the gorilla trek if you want to save.

VERDICT:

The gorilla trekking can be done ALL YEAR ROUND

Comparing the chimpanzee trekking in Rwanda and Uganda – which country offers the best chimp tour

When it comes to safari destinations in Africa, Uganda and Rwanda are popular for their primate adventures and most visitors include one or both of the two countries in their African trips just for the primates. The two most popular primate adventures that attract tourists to this part of Africa are the gorilla trekking and the chimpanzee tracking. The gorilla trek is obviously the number one primate adventure which you can do in Uganda and Rwanda as the prime destinations. In this article I compared the gorilla trekking in Uganda versus Rwanda when deciding on the country for the gorilla tour. The chimpanzee trek is often an afterthought from the gorillas, which shouldn’t be the case because the chimps who are our closest relatives offer a different experience, which you could find is way more exciting than the gorillas!

In this article I compare the chimpanzee trekking in Uganda and the chimpanzee trekking in Rwanda to guide you in making a choice if you are wondering where to go for the chimps tour in Africa.

Pros: Why you should do your chimpanzee trekking in Rwanda

  1. Relatively cheap permit: The chimpanzee trekking in Rwanda costs $90 which is cheaper than the $200 charged when trekking in Kibale National Park Uganda’s prime chimp tour destination.
  2. Guaranteed sightings of chimps: The park will ensure you trek one of the only two habituated chimpanzee groups in Nyungwe National Park that is confirmed to be more accessible that day hence guaranteeing your sightings.
  3. Great hiking adventure because of the mountain landscape: Nyungwe forest National Park where the chimp trek is done is a mountain forest which offers an amazing hike for the active travelers and hiking enthusiast.
  4. Amazing scenery in the mountain forest: Nyungwe forest which is located on the rolling highlands rewards with breathtaking views as a bonus on your chimp trek.
  5. Add the canopy walk experience which is a highlight of Nyungwe: The best canopy walk experience by far in the East African region, a tour in Nyungwe is not complete without the canopy walk adventure in Nyungwe that will spice your chimpanzee trekking adventure in Rwanda.
  6. You can stay at Lake Kivu one of the most beautiful lakes in Africa, while tracking the chimps: Also, a big bonus to trekking chimpanzee is fall back to nearby Lake Kivu to offer great relaxation and amazing scenery after trek.

Here is a short 2 day chimpanzee trip to Nyungwe National Park

Cons: some reasons you may decide not to do your chimp trek in Rwanda

  1. Limited chimpanzee tracking permits: Rwanda has only one park for the chimpanzee tracking (Nyungwe Forest National Park) and just two habituated groups in the park. Since only 8 people can track the chimps in a day, that means only 16 permits are available in one day. The limited permits can be a hinderance to your trip planning as it is easy to miss the permits which sell out quickly.
  2. Hard trek: The mountainous terrain of Nyungwe can be a challenge for the trek and especially given the chimps are also very active primates. Older and less fit people may find the chimp trek in Rwanda quite a challenge

Pros: Why you may prefer do to your chimpanzee trekking in Uganda

  1. Many options for the chimp trek: There many destinations in Uganda for the chimpanzee trek. Unlike Rwanda which has just one park, Uganda has several destinations where you can do the chimp trek in the different regions and some of them include Kibale forest, Budongo forest, Kalinzu forest, etc… This abundance of the chimpanzee destinations makes it easy for you to incorporate the adventure in your Uganda safari trip.
  2. Many chimpanzee permits: With many destinations and many habituated chimpanzee groups, there is a lot of availability of chimpanzee tracking permits in Uganda and therefore not so easy to miss out.
  3. Can get affordable chimp tracking: Price of chimpanzee trekking permit differs according to the destination and one can find a cheaper chimp trekking permit for as low as $40, a great thing for the backpackers and students who may not afford the $200 price of the chimpanzee tracking permit in Kibale National Park which is the country’s major chimpanzee tours destination.
  4. Easier trek: Terrain of many of the destinations is not mountainous hence offering an easier hike that is favorable even for the older citizens or less fit persons.

Cons: Why you may not prefer Uganda for your chimpanzee trekking

  1. Some destinations do not provide a 100% chance of seeing the chimps. However the prime destination Kibale National Park offer 100% chance of seeing the chimps.
  2. Trek is less exclusive with many tracking groups setting off into the forest and can cross paths as each tracks down their habituated chimp group.