Kibale Forest

Introduction

Get into Kibale National Park, and you will immediately sense the freshness of the dew, the fragrances of endemic flowers, and the musty scents left behind by monkey troops in the canopy. The sounds are also alien, from the distant echoed hoot of red colobus monkeys to the exotic chirping of endemic birds. In the distance, you may hear the sound of one of the park’s elephants plowing a path into the trees, and all around your camp, there will be evidence of four-legged visitors, like the bushbuck and the warthogs. Gaze up, and a single scene might capture the iconic and the unique as an olive long-tailed cuckoo will fly above a small buffalo herd.

Kibale Forest Park Entry Fees 2021/22

STATUSFNRNREAC
AdultsUSD 40USD 30UGX 20,000
childrenUSD 20USD 10UGX 5,000
Chimp TrackingUSD 200USD 150UGX 150,000
Chimp HabituationUSD 250USD 250UGX 250,000
Guided WalksUSD 40USD 30

KEY: FNR – Foreign Non-Residents, FR – Foreign Residents, EAC – East African Community

Kibale Forest National Park

Beaming with an alluring combination of exquisite landscape scenery and various remarkable tourist activities, Kibale Forest National Park, together with the nearby Ndali-Kasenda Crater Lakes, is close to being an independent traveler’s dream.

Kibale Forest is highly powerfully and mysteriously attractive to nature lovers who come to view a wide range of forest birds and track chimpanzees and other twelve primate species (the highest on the continent) that find refuge within the park. Kibale National Park’s scenic appeal, chimp tracking cost, and the rising number of safari lodges make it one of Uganda’s top destinations and a great alternative to the southern gorilla destination Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.

Gazetted in October 1993, the 766 square kilometer Kibale Forest National Park extends southwards from Fort Portal to form a contiguous block with the Queen Elizabeth National Park. Kibale’s vegetation is interspersed with grassland and swamp patches. The dominant vegetation type is rainforest, spanning altitudes of 1,100-1,590m, with a floral composition transitional to typical eastern Afro-montane and western lowland forest.

Kibale Forest National Park, Chimpanzee Tracking Excursions

Wildlife

At least 70 mammal species are present in Kibale Forest. It is particularly rich in primates, with 13 species recorded, the highest total in Africa. The nine diurnal primates found at Kibale are vervet, red-tailed, L’Hoest’s and blue monkeys, grey-cheeked mangabey, endangered 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 do both the forest and the swamp walks can typically expect to see around five or six primate species.

Although Kibale Forest offers superlative primate viewing, it is not an easy place to see large mammals despite an impressive checklist. Some of the mammals on the Kibale checklist include lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo, hippo, warthog, giant forest hog, bushpig, bushbuck, sitatunga, golden cat, and Peter’s, red and blue duikers.

The elephants found in Kibale Forest are classified as belonging 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 tourists do not often see them.

Avian life, bird watching and birding in Kibale Forest

Birds in Kibale

Roughly 375 bird species have been recorded in Kibale Forest, including four species not recorded in any other national parks: Nahan’s francolin, Cassin’s spinetail, blue-headed bee-eater, and masked Apalis.

Otherwise, the checklist for Kibale National Park includes a similar range of forest birds to Semliki National Park, excluding the 40-odd Semliki ‘specials’ and the inclusion of a greater variety of water grassland species. The rare Green-breasted pitta can be sighted around Bigodi, while the genuinely enthusiastic might want to look out for Prigogine’s ground thrush, a presumably endemic species or race.

The best birdwatching spot in the Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary, where patrons have laid out a four-hour trail, 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’ birdwatching in the Kiliingami and Magombe swamps near Sebitoli and Katiyancliti, respectively. No park fee is charged for passing through the park on the Fort Portal-Kamwenge Road, staying at the guesthouses in and around Bigodi, or visiting the Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary.

Kibale Forest guided chimpanzee tracking excursion

Activities

The most popular activity in Kibale National Park is the guided chimpanzee 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 center and Kanyanchu Camp. If time is limited, it’s advisable to do the activity that most interests you in the morning — this is the best time to see chimpanzees and when birds are most active.

Guided forest walks in Kibale cost USD 30/40 Day/Night, excluding park entrance.

A highlight of any visit to Kibale Forest will be the chimp tracking hike that leaves Kanyanchu at 08.00 and 14.00 daily. Chimp sightings are not guaranteed on these walks, but the odds of encountering them have significantly improved in recent years and now stand at around 96%. The chimpanzee community, whose territory centers on Kanyanchu, is well habituated, with the result that visitors can often approach within a few meters of them.

While in the forest, you can expect to see at least two or three other types of primates, most probably grey-cheeked mangabey and red-tailed monkeys.

You will hear plenty of birdsong, but it’s challenging to see any birds in the heart of the forest. You’re better off looking for them in the rest camp and along the road. The guides are knowledgeable and will identify various medicinal plants, bird calls, and animal spoor.

For dedicated chimp enthusiasts or aspiring researchers seeking field experience, join a chimpanzee habituation experience, which involves staying with the chimps all day with habituators and taking notes on their behavior.

A one-day chimpanzee habituation experience for foreign non-residents and residents costs USD 250 per person, and East African Nationals cost UGX 250,000 per person. The cost includes guide fees and park entrance but not accommodation.

Another novelty is a guided night walk with spotlights, which runs from 19.30 to 22.00 daily, costs US$40 per person, and offers a good chance of sighting nocturnal primates such as the bushbaby and potto.

Bigodi wetland sanctuary

Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary

Bigodi Wetland Sanctuary and Magombe Swamp, adjacent to Bigodi trading center and immediately outside the Kibale National Park boundary, is an admirable example of conservation and tourism having a direct local benefit at the grass-root level.

The Sanctuary is run by the Kibale Association For Rural and Environmental Development (KAFRED), a local community project that has used the funds collected from guided walks to educate and develop the sanctuary community. One of the most successful sustainable tourism projects in the country.

The guided 2.8mi (4.5km) circular trail through the swamp is also one of the best-guided bird trails in East Africa and offers a realistic opportunity to see up to eight different primate species in the space of a few hours.

The trail starts at the KAFRED office on the Fort Portal side of Bigodi. You’ll pay your Bigodi guided walking fee of USD 23 for foreign non-residents/residents/East African nationals, respectively, and a patron will allocate you a guide.

Serious birdwatchers should mention their particular 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. Still, 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. It is worth getting to the office for morning walks as early as you can or possibly even arranging dawn start a day in advance.

The trail is very muddy in parts, and if you don’t have good walking shoes, you will do well to hire a pair of gumboots from the KAFRED office — this costs less than US$1.

It doesn’t matter greatly whether you go in the morning or afternoon for general monkey viewing, but birders should definitely aim to do the morning walk.

The sanctuary’s main attraction to ornithologists is quality rather than quantity. You’d be fortunate 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 you can see the unique birds, 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 great blue turaco, which most visitors will see. Another specialty is the papyrus gonolek, which you’re most likely to hear before seeing and frequently encounter along the main road. 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.

Unguided Walks in Kibale

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 various forest sunbirds.

You can also expect to see or hear several robin and greenbul types, often difficult to tell apart unless you get a good look at them (little greenbul and red-capped robin appear to be most common around the camp). The camp’s specialty 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 regularly at Kanyanchu are the great blue turaco, hairy-breasted barbet, black-necked weaver, and black-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 main road stretch between Fort Portal and Kamwenge as it runs through the forest. The most interesting section on this road is the first few kilometers running north. towards Fort Portal from Katiyanchu, where you’re 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 various habitats – forest patches, swamp, and grassland – and is also productive for birds and monkeys.

Fort Portal Kmwenge Road through Kibale Forest

Getting To Kibale Forest and Away

Kibale Forest National Park is most normally approached from Fort Portal using the Kamwenge Road. A recently tarmac paved route with several steep sections, though with consequences for wildlife on the 10km stretch through the national park.

If you’re driving from Fort Portal town center, follow Lugard Road downhill (north) to the Mpanga River, turning right immediately before the bridge. About 12km out of Fort Portal, you reach a major junction, where you need to fork left (the right fork, incidentally, leads to Lake Nkuruba and Ndali Lodge in the Ndali-Kasenda Crater Field). After another 11km, you pass Crater Valley Resort and Chimpanzee Guesthouse, 2km before the road enters the forest, from which point it’s 6 miles to Kanyanchu River Camp and a further 3 miles to Bigodi.

Regular minibus taxis run back and forth between Bigodi and Fort Portal throughout the day and are far more comfortable and safer than boda-boda (motorbikes). Taxi touts routinely overcharge tourists, so it’s advisable to check what local passengers are paying. There are normally fewer transport options on Sunday.

A little-used alternative route to Kibale Forest runs north from Mbarara via Ibanda and Kamwenge. This route is tarmacked and passes between some lovely hills on the way to Ibanda, north of which the road is recently paved and pretty good. In a private vehicle, the drive should take two hours. Using public transport, you’ll probably have to change vehicles at Ibanda and Kamwenge, and may well have to overnight at one or other town — both possess a few cheap guesthouses. You can easily pick up transport from Kamwenge to Fort Portal via Kanyanchu. If you’re heading this way, you might want to investigate the Mpanga Falls and nearby cycad fields between Kamwenge and Ibanda.

Mpanga Falls

The Mpanga River forms this impressive waterfall as it tumbles over the rim of the 1,200m Mount Karubaguma some 15km before emptying into Lake George. Estimated to be about 50m high, the waterfall is enclosed by a steep gorge and supports a lush cover of spray forest.

A remarkable feature of the gorge’s vegetation is the cycad Encephalartos whitelockii’s profusion to this single location. Perhaps the closest thing among trees to living fossils, the cycads are relics of an ancient order of coniferous plants that flourished some 300 to 200 million years ago. They have an aptly prehistoric appearance of an overgrown tree fern perched on top of a palm stem up to 10m tall. Many modern species are, like Encephalartos whitelockii, extremely localized and classified as endangered, partly because of their prolonged life cycle.

The colony in Mpanga Gorge, however, is described by locals as possibly the largest in Africa. The Mpanga Falls can be reached with reasonable ease as a day trip from Kibale Forest or diversion from the main road between Kamwenge and Ibanda. Kamwenge is well served by public transport from both directions. From there, you’ll need a special hire or boda-boda to cover the 22km from town to the gorge.

Mpanga Gorge lies in the remotest corner of QENP, so technically, you’ll need to clear this with the park authority in Kebuko village, 18km from Kamwenge.

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 meters off the main Fort Portal-Kampala road and is far easier to reach than Kanyanchu.

Sebitoli development opened in 2002 to help ease tourist pressure on the Kanyanchu sector of the park. It offers similar activities and facilities to Kanyanchu, except for chimpanzee tracking, and is far more accessible for Fort Portal day-trippers.

Guided forest walks cost USD 20/25 per person for a half/full day (excluding UWA entrance fee) and 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 birdwatching and a visit to local tea estates, and leave daily at 07.30 and 15.00, and cost US$10 per person.

Ndali-Kasenda Crater Lakes near Kibale Forest

Ndali-Kasenda Crater Lakes

The part of western Uganda, overshadowed by the Rwenzori, is pockmarked with one of the world’s densest concentrations of volcanic crater lakes. Over 50 crater lakes decorated the western and northwestern region outside Kibale Forest.

According to local legend, these lakes were created by Ndahura, the first Bacwezi king, when I retired to the area after abdicating in favor of his son Wamala. Less romantically, the craters are vivid relics of the immense volcanic and geological forces that have molded the western Ugandan landscape, from the Albertine Rift to the Ruwenzori and Virunga mountains.

The lakes are conventionally divided into four main groups: the Fort Portal Cluster immediately northwest of Kibale National Park, the Bunyaruguru Cluster straddling the Rift Valley Escarpment southeast of Queen Elizabeth National Park, the Kasenda cluster to the west of Kibale Forest National Park, and the Katwe Cluster part of the Rift Valley protected within in Queen Elizabeth National Park.

The most accessible and extensive of these crater lake fields is the Ndali or Kasenda Cluster, which formed about 10,000 years ago and consisted of about 60 permanent and seasonal freshwater lakes centered on Kasenda, Rweetera, Rwaihamba, and Kabata trading centers, some 20-30km south of Fort Portal.

The Kasenda lakes are all different in character and are very beautiful. The lush surrounding countryside, rattling with birds, monkeys, and butterflies, provides limitless opportunities for casual exploration below the majestic backdrop of the glacial peaks of the Rwenzori.

Despite this, the Kasenda area has only recently started to catch on with travelers, in large part as a result of the erection of a few excellent lodging like Ndali Lodge. For any visitor looking to spend a few inexpensive days rambling and hiking in beautiful unspoiled surroundings, it isn’t easy to think of any part of Uganda as suitable as the Kasenda area.

The Kasenda Crater Lakes are usually approached from Fort Portal, following the road to Kibale Forest National Park for 7mi to Kasisi, at a major fork in the road. If you’re heading to the more easterly lakes, then take the left fork at Kasisi, as you would for Kibale Forest National Park, and you’ll pass Lake Nyamirima and then Isunga Lodge and Chimpanzee Guesthouse after 5.2mi and 6.8mi, respectively. Any minibus-taxi or pick-up truck heading to Kamwenge or Bigodi can drop you at these places.

To reach the main cluster of lakes, you need to fork right at Kasisi for Kasenda trading center, passing Lake Nkuruba, Rwaihamba, and Kabata/Ndali Lodge after 5mi, 6mi, and 8mi, respectively. Vehicles heading to Rwaihamba can drop you at Lake Nkuruba Nature Reserve, but stop 2km short of Kabata. Boda-bodas are available at Rwaihamba.

Using private transport, travelers can approach the crater lakes from the Rubona trading center on the main Kasese—Fort Portal road, following a dirt road branching east through Rwakenzi and Murukomba to arrive in Kabata after 16km. During the rainy season, this road will probably be suitable for 4×4 vehicles only.

Suppose you’re driving in a 4×4 from Ndali Lodge or Lake Nkuruba to Kibale Forest for the morning chimp-tracking excursion. In that case, you can either go back through Kasisi or use one of two short-cuts between the Kasenda and Kamwenge roads: a 5.2mi tarmac road between Rwaihamba via Isunga or a 3mi dirt track between Lake Nkuruba and Rweetera. Both shortcuts may be impassable after rain, so seek local advice concerning the best route.

Explore Kibale Forest Your Own Way!

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