The Big 5 was coined by hunting safari explores, back in the 1800s, based on how challenging to hunt these animals were. But since the big five experience is now all about photographing, viewing, and meeting the wild creatures, Uganda’s big 5 list includes the mountain gorilla, lion, chimpanzee, African elephant, and leopard. Our list is based on travelers most south after animals to see on a Uganda safari, challenging to reach and offer memorable photography moments.
In addition to experiencing Uganda’s exquisite cultures, people, and viewing some of the most stunning landscaped, your trip to Uganda will not richly reward you until you meet these magnificent animals.
Uganda’s Big 5 Animals
1. Mountain Gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei)
Arguably the most sought-after primate in East Africa is the mountain gorilla (King of the rainforest jungle), and Uganda offers the best gorilla viewing experiences worldwide. The gentle giants in Uganda’s southwestern corner are so famous, hundreds of tourists wait up months in advance to spend a moment with these charming beasts. More than 1060 mountain gorillas find sanctuary in the east-central African mountain rainforests, and more than half of them are in Uganda.
Standing upright at 4 to 6 feet, a fully grown mountain gorilla can weigh a whopping 300 to 485 pounds (135 to 220 kilograms). The mountain gorilla unsurprisingly makes the number one on Uganda’s BIG 5 animals list because of its mass, scarcity, magical moments, and most of all, the gentle giant lives in one of the most biodiverse homes in the world.
To stay warm in the mountains, mountain gorillas have longer hair than their eastern lowland cousins, the Grauer’s gorillas (Gorilla beringei graueri). They also tend to be a bit larger than other gorillas and have shorter arms.
Gorillas can climb trees but are usually found on the ground in communities of up to 30 individuals. These troops are organized according to fascinating social structures.
One dominant, older adult male leads troops, often called a silverback because of the swath of silver hair that adorns his otherwise dark fur. Troops also include several other young males, some females, and their offspring.
The leader organizes troop activities like eating, nesting in leaves, and moving about in a home range of 0.75-to 16 square miles. Those who challenge this alpha male are apt to be cowed by impressive shows of physical power.
He may stand upright, throw things, make aggressive charges, and pound his huge chest while barking out powerful hoots or unleashing a frightening roar.
Despite these displays and the animals’ obvious physical power, gorillas are generally calm and nonaggressive unless they are disturbed.
The 128 sq mi (331 sq km) Bwindi alone hosts more than 469 mountain gorillas, and about 200 individuals are habituated for tourism in four different sectors around the park’s boundaries. Mgahinga NP, on Virunga mountains’ slopes, shares the other gorilla habitat with Rwanda’s Volcanoes and DRC’s Virunga National Parks. Mgahinga has two habituated gorilla groups, offering 16 gorilla trekking permits per day.
Thousands of travelers flock to the impenetrable rainforests of Bwindi National Park to spend that precious moment with this magnificent gentle giant, and they’ll tell you that the experience is unmatched on any African safari encounter. So, in our books, the mountain gorilla qualifies for the BIG African wildlife list.
You can see the mountain gorillas on a guided gorilla trekking excursion for the price of a permit costing USD 700 (or $400 at a discounted price) per person. The permit issued by the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) at face value will allow you one unforgettable hour with the mountain giants.
Or, if you got the hearts for it, take a gorilla habituation experience safari and spend more than 4 hours foraging with a family of semi-habituated mountain gorillas for a permit fee of USD 1500 per person.
Currently Trending Gorilla Trekking Adventures
2. African Lion (Panthera leo)
The largest and most imposing African carnivore, and the most sought-after member on Africa safari, is the African lion. The lion is the most sociable of the large cats, living in loosely structured cat prides of typically five to 15 animals.
These ferocious cats have special cultural significance in most countries on the continent. In Uganda, the lion enjoys a reputation as ‘king of the beasts’ and a popular symbol of royalty, strength, and bravery.
In QENP’s southern section, the Ishasha lions show off their unique behavior of climbing trees, and travelers have branded them the “Ishasha tree-climbing lions.” Tourists flock to this sector to marvel at this rare behavior of wild cats.
Unfortunately for the lions in this section of Uganda have faced gruesome wildlife atrocities on two occasions in the last decade; once in April 2011 (poachers poisoned 11 lions) and recently in April 2021 (6 poisoned and dismembered).
The worst threat still facing those magnificent lions in Uganda is poaching.
Head out early or take an evening drive on the game tracks to catch the hunting action on the plains. When the sun is high up, the lions are lazy and probably chilling in bushes where it’s a bit challenging to see them.
Due to a low number of lions in extensive plains, you may find it challenging to find the lions independently. We recommend you hire a tracking guide/ranger to help you easily track the lions.
UWA offers ranger/guide services for game drives for a cost of USD 20 per vehicle for day game drives and USD 30 per person for night drives. The rangers use walkie-talkies to communicate with an onsight ranger to locate lion prides and live cat actions on the plains, so using their services is quite rewarding.
Lion Tracking Research Experience
Lion tracking is one of one the most exciting experiences in spotting Uganda’s BIG 5 animals. Uganda Carnivore Project that runs the research offers this activity in Queen Elizabeth National Park to travelers that want to spend more time on the plains observing these fascinating cats.
The lions tracking experience team heads out every evening with a limited number of tourists and spend about one to three hours observing lions prides and learning their behaviors.
UWA issues lion tracking permits at USD 50 for Foreign Non-Residents and UGX 100,000 for East African Nationals, including the park entrance fee. Of the cost, $10 is donated to the Uganda carnivore Project responsible for conserving the lions. So the experience will be also for a good cause. It’s what leisure travel is about today!
3. Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes)
7 out of 10 tourists visiting Uganda’s rainforest parks will say they had to come and see our playful primate cousins in their natural cradle. The chimpanzee’s celebrity status among travelers earns it a great position on Uganda’s BIG 5 Animals lists.
The common Chimpanzee is a distinctive black-coated ape that’s more closely related to man than any other living creature. Along with bonobos, they are our closest living relatives, sharing 98.7 percent of our genetic blueprint. Science research has consistently shown that humans and chimps share a common ancestor who lived some seven to 13 million years ago.
The Chimpanzee lives in large, loosely bonded communities based around a core of related males with an internal hierarchy topped by an alpha male. Females are generally less strongly bonded to their core group than are males; emigration between communities is not unusual.
Mother—child bonds are strong. Daughters normally leave their mother only after they reach maturity, at which point they break their relations. Mother—son relations have been known to survive for over 40 years. A troop has a well-defined core territory which is fiercely defended by regular boundary patrols.
Chimpanzees are primarily frugivorous (fruit-eating), but they eat meat and even hunt on occasion — they’ve regularly hunted red colobus monkeys in Tanzania’s Gombe Stream and Mahale Mountains national parks. Simultaneously, researchers in Kalinzu Forest in Uganda have observed chimps eating blue and red-tailed monkeys, and unsuccessful attempts to hunt black-and-white colobus.
Chimpanzees are among the most intelligent of Uganda’s BIG 5 animals. These guys have been observed regularly using tools like modified sticks to ‘fish’ in termite mounds. Scientists have also observed chimps cracking nuts open using a stone and anvil.
In language studies in the USA, researchers have taught chimps to communicate in American sign language. They have demonstrated their understanding, in some instances, by even creating compound words for new objects (such as rock-berry to describe a nut).
Uganda hosts more than 4900 chimps within its national park, making it a top destination for primate viewing. Kibale National Park, in western Uganda, offers the best chimpanzee viewing (in their natural habitat) opportunities in the world, with over 1500 chimps swinging the park’s tree-tops.
Kibale also has the highest density of primates on the continent, with researchers recording 13 primate species within the park. Much work has gone into habituating chimpanzee troops for tourism in Kibale Forest, so seeing our primate cousins in the park is highly guaranteed.
You can also see chimpanzees in Kyambura Gorge found in Queen Elizabeth National Park, Semliki Wildlife Reserve, and the Budongo and Kanyiyo Pabidi forests near Murchison Falls National Park.
A Chimp Trekking Experience
Non-residents, foreign residents, or east African citizens respectively pay USD 200/ $150/Ush150,000 for chimpanzee tracking in Kibale National Park.
Chimp trekking permit in Kyambura Gorge costs USD 50/ $50/Ush30,000 and USD 30/ $30/Ush20,000 in Semliki Wildlife Reserve.
The discounted Chimpanzee Tracking Permit price that runs from Dec 2020 to June 2021 costs USD 150/ $100/UGX100,000 for non-residents, foreign residents, or East African citizens.
For a much exciting and lengthy-time with the forest troops, UWA offers Chimpanzee Habituation Experience (CHEX). It is considerably a much entertaining excursion that costs USD 250/permit for foreign nonresidents and East African residents and Ush 250,000 for East African nationals.
Combine chimps trekking in Kibale with gorilla trekking in Bwindi Impenetrable forest for an ultimate experience of Uganda’s primates. Safari operators like Nkuringo Safaris offer customizable journeys between the two destinations at pretty impressive prices.
4. African Elephant (Loxodonta africana)
African Elephant is the world’s largest of all Uganda’s BIG 5 animals and perhaps the most enduring symbol of nature’s grace and fragility. The elephant is also one of the most intelligent and entertaining to watch on a classic Uganda safari game drive.
A fully-grown male elephant can weigh a whopping 13,889 lbs (6300 kilos). Even the smallest adult male rarely dips below 4000 kilos, which is way more than twice the weight on an average family SUV. Females are usually just over half the weight of the male.
The size difference between the two is not as surprising as when it comes to height – the tallest males are 4 meters tall, the tallest female rises to 3.4 meters. Apart from overall size, unless the male is sexually aroused, the most obvious difference between males and females is that females have an angular forehead. In contrast, a bull’s forehead is more rounded.
There’s more: an African elephant has the giant brain of any mammal alive; it can weigh up to 6 kilos. Its trunk, which serves an elephant like a hand, can be 2 meters long and weigh over 130 kilos – a trunk has no bones but may have 60,000 muscles in it. An elephant uses its tusks as both tools and weapons. The longest recorded tusks were 3.17m long, while the heaviest reached 70kg.
There are two subspecies of the African elephant – the forest and the savannah elephant. You may be lucky to see the smaller and slightly hairier forest elephant in Kibale and Bwindi’s equatorial forests. The savannah elephant dwells throughout the grassy plains and bushlands of Uganda’s massive savannah parks. The two races are thought to interbreed in parts of western Uganda.
Elephants live in herds consisting of related females and their calves. The herds are matriarchal, meaning that they are led by one female, while the males (bulls) tend to roam alone. The family units of savannah elephants tend to be around 10 individuals, but these units can come together to form a ‘clan’ of up to 70 individuals led by one female. The forest elephants live in smaller family units.
Mother—daughter bonds are strong and may exist for up to 50 years. Males generally leave the family group at around 12 years, after which they either roam around on their own or form bachelor herds.
If you’re planning your Africa safari in Uganda and would like to meet one of Uganda’s BIG 5 animal giants, you must know that the African elephants occur in all Uganda National Parks except for Lake Mburo. You are most likely to easily seen them in Murchison Falls, Queen Elizabeth, and Kidepo National Parks.
The most exciting sighting is when you find them at the waterholes. Take a boat safari on the Victoria Nile in Murchison Falls NP or Kazinga Channel in QENP and catch a front row sight of the gentle giants gracefully flocking the water banks in massive herds.
UWA conducts boat launch trips on Kazinga Channel, and Victoria Nile at 10:00 am and 2:00 p.m. at the cost of USD 30 to foreign non-residents and foreign residents and UGX 30000 to East African Nationals.
5. Leopard (Panthera pardus)
This is the most elusive of Uganda’s BIG 5 animals. Leopards in Uganda are sneaky and harder to spot. Naturally shy and exclusively nocturnal, leopards spend the daylight hours hidden from view. These solitary felines are impressive to watch when hauling large kills, such as zebra or antelope, into a tree to eat alone, in peace.
Leopards can be distinguished from cheetahs by their rosette-shaped spots and more robust build and their preference for wooded or rocky habitats. They are found in virtually all habitats which offer adequate cover and are present in most Ugandan national parks and forest reserves.
Its capacity for adapting to changes in prey species, hunting conditions, carnivore competition, vegetation patterns, and human activities enables it to survive in developing Africa with more success than almost any other large wild animal. It can even persist in more or less advanced agricultural areas, though often in significantly reduced numbers.
A leopard differs from other Uganda’s BIG 5 animals because of locals reporting them outside protected areas. The surprise livestock loss on ranches in the west of the country and through much of the ‘cattle corridor’ which separates the western rift from Kampala and Masaka’s highlands. They hunt using stealth and power, often getting to within 5 meters of their intended prey before pouncing, and they habitually store their kill in a tree to keep it from being poached by other large predators.
Meanwhile, together with the poaching, it has induced, the international fur trade has depressed leopard populations in several parts of Uganda. We do not have any reasonable measure of population numbers anywhere for this species. However, we do have sightings from rangers collected while they are on patrol in the protected areas managed by UWA.
Travelers can, on game drives, view leopards in Queen Elizabeth National Park, Murchison Falls National Park, Kidepo Valley National, Lake Mburo National Park, Mt Elgon National Park, and Toro-Semliki Wildlife Reserve.
Sightings in Queen Elizabeth National Park are relatively numerous in comparison with other sites in Uganda. This park likely is one of the last strongholds for this species in the country. Late Evening game drives are sure to bring you close to a live leopard action.
Leopards have mainly been sighted in the Buligi circuit area in northwest Murchison Falls Park, but this is likely to be due to higher patrol effort. Most of the sightings are concentrated around ranger patrol posts in the park. There are few patrols in the center of the park each year, and leopards are likely to be more abundant here than the figure below indicates. Only one sighting of a leopard has occurred in Ajai Wildlife Reserve from the ranger collected data.
Leopards have been seen throughout most of Kidepo Valley National Park but more commonly in the Narus valley. It’s likely because of patrol effort differences, although ungulate numbers are meager in the Kidepo Valley in the park. Hence, leopards are more numerous in the Narus valley.
One of the big cats on Uganda’s big 5 animals list is also frequently sighted in the west of Lake Mburo National Park, with one sighting on the ranch lands to the north of the park. These ranchlands are seasonal grazing areas for many of the ungulates in the park, and they move here in the wet seasons. A pilot sport hunting project in this area is encouraging the conservation of wildlife on these ranchlands.
Mount Elgon National Park is a montane forest with alpine vegetation at high altitudes. Most of the leopards’ sightings are in the lower altitude montane forest or the degraded forest at the park’s edge.
Only two leopards have been sighted in the Toro-Semliki Wildlife Reserve since observations started to be recorded in 2007.
Forget the Africa BIG Five every safari newbie craves to tick off their bucket list, let’s leave that to the Safari giants. Our team thinks Uganda offers a more robust BIG 5 animals list. For a savvy traveler, this list covers some of the most interesting animals to watch while visiting this tiny East African destination.
Uganda is mostly underrated for rewarding safari expeditions. On the contrary, it offers more than the assumed punch. The most rewarding Uganda safari journeys are those that combine the rainforest primate experience with one of the big savannah game parks like Queen Elizabeth, Murchison Falls or the fur flung Kidepo Valley. considering the current COVID-19 situation, such a trip will assure you of not having to cross borders into Kenya or Tanzania and dealing with the annoying immigration bureaucracies.
The best safari operator that travelers have highly recommended since 2007, to take you on a most rewarding Uganda safari to see Uganda’s Big 5 animals is NKuringo Safaris. Check them out, send them an email directly and I can assure you they’ll reply with the most empathetic response to help you customize a memorable trip.