It’s remarkable how quickly humans can adapt to their surroundings when they have to. Or want to.
When I lived in Bogota a couple of years ago, finding myself in the midst of heavily-armed and uniformed soldiers became ludicrously routine, just an everyday part of the city’s urban landscape. In Austria’s High Tauern alpine range, it’s finding yourself glued into an impossibly beautiful landscape of 3,000-plus meter high peaks jabbing the sky in all directions.
In Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park, it’s the wildlife, some of the largest beasts on the planet, that immediately become the regular fixtures of your reality du jour. Sightings of elephants strolling across the savanna or hippos swimming across a river or Cape Buffalo returning your blank stare became as common and impossible to miss as the bumps on the rough road you’re slowly driving and bouncing along.
That’s the main attraction of Queen Elizabeth National Park, a 1,978-square kilometer (764 sq mi) expanse in Uganda’s southwestern corner, the country’s most popular and most visited protected area, and home to the country’s widest variety of wildlife.
In some ways, it’s also its most dangerous attraction, lending the false sense that this wildlife, some 95 species of mammal and more than 600 species of bird that call the boundaries of the park home, are abundant and secure, living in pastoral harmony in areas where human and animal habitats have encroached upon one another since well before the park was founded more than half a century ago.
The first thing we saw upon check-in at our bungalows at the Pumba Safari Cottages, situated just above the edge of the park, were three elephants chomping on their dinner, just a few hundred meters away. By any measure, it was about the best way to end a day that involved a seven-hour drive from Kampala, and a most appropriate welcome to an area now a world away from the capital’s dust and diesel.
There was no need for an alarm clock in the morning. The pre-dawn wake up call, an oddly pleasant combo of a call to prayer from the nearby village mosque’s modest minaret coupled with a local 75-piece birdsong orchestra, did the job. A pre-breakfast cup of coffee and slice of banana bread were waiting our arrival in the dining room; ten minutes later the rising sun splattered a bursting palate of reds and oranges over the landscape as we set out.
Queen Elizabeth National Park – Kasenyi Plains
Stretching from the remote Ishasha River sector along the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo in the south to the foothills of the picturesque Rwenzori mountain range to the north, and east to west between Lake George and Lake Edward, the park’s half million acres are largely composed of savanna; the first half hour into our drive on the Kasenyi Plains that straddle the equator in the park’s northern section illustrates how even savanna landscapes can vary.
The first animal we see in the park proper is a warthog; with its straggly unkempt orange hair blowing in the slight breeze, it begs for the nickname Trump. As quickly as it scampers out of view a hippopotamus enters the scene. It seems lost, the proverbial fish out of water.
Next up is a family of Ugandan Kob, the national antelope species that has pride of place on the country’s flag. These are the first of hundreds we’ll see over the course of two game drives that day.
Next are the elephants. A few minutes later, a herd of Cape Buffalo appear on the horizon. Less than an hour later, we’ll watch, parked alongside a half dozen other safari vehicles, a pair of lions attempting to mate. Four of the African ‘Big Five’ –Cape buffalo, lions, leopards, elephants and rhinoceroses– can be seen in the park; on our first game drive, we see three before even beginning the return to our lodge for breakfast.
According to Uganda Wildlife Authority figures, the elephant population in the park was 3,018 in 2014, up from 2,497 in 2005, an 18 percent increase. If those figures appear low, consider that the park’s elephant population was down to about 150 in the mid-1980s when poaching was rampant, largely directed by the Ugandan military during the ruthless turmoil of the Idi Amin regime.
It’s notable too that while elephant numbers are in decline elsewhere on the continent, they’re recovering in Uganda, whose national population now tops 5,000.
Lions however, aren’t faring well.
According to this February 2017 report by National Geographic conservation writer and researcher Michael Schwartz, there are only about 350 lions in the entire country; the park’s population is likely less than one-quarter of that. That we managed to spot two on the Kasenyi Plain –engaged in foreplay no less– was a glorious if invasive exception, rather than the rule.
The park’s wildlife faces no shortage of challenges, stemming primarily from the area’s relatively high population density. Eleven settlements within the park’s boundaries are home to more than 20,000 people; another 70,000 live immediately along the park’s borders where human and animal communities have converged –often in conflict– since the park was founded in 1952.
Two of the largest ethnic groups in this area are the Basongora, who were traditionally pastoralists, and the Bakonzo (or Bakonjo), who are predominately cultivators. Given the proximity of Lakes Edward and George, fishing is also an important livelihood for many people.
The area around the park was traditionally the land of the Basongora pastoralists. When Queen Elizabeth National Park was formally gazetted in 1952, the Basongora had to find other land on which to graze their cattle. Some of them crossed the border into the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 2006 and 2007, over 1,000 Basongora with 10,000 cattle were expelled from the Congo’s Virunga National Park and returned to Uganda. Some joined the mainstream Basongora community around the Nyakatonzi area, which borders the Park, yet with more than 50,000 cattle now in the region, many had to move within the Park’s boundaries. Fearing the negative impact this would have on the wildlife and ecosystem, the government relocated them to various areas outside of the Park, including onto land that was being used by the Bakonzo cultivators. This resulted in a great deal of conflict, and lives and property were lost.
In short, with little land available, much of the interaction is violent or invasive. Lions and hyenas kill cattle and hippopotami and elephants eat crops so local ranchers kill the animals doing the hunting and gathering.
Harriet Kanyere, a ranger and guide stationed at the park’s main headquarters, told me that poaching, in the more traditional sense, isn’t nearly the threat that it once was. Locals who do resort to poaching don’t do so out of commercial greed –to feed the international ivory trade, for example– but out of agricultural necessity.
“We are working to sensitize the communities about the importance of conservation efforts,” Kanyere said, pointing out that 20 percent of all park entrance fees are invested directly into projects that benefit the local community.
When we chatted, it was clear to me that she understood the difficulties locals, who are primarily poor subsistence farmers, face. Promises made to communities over the years have not been kept, and with mistrust directed towards authorities, she said, beneficial and positive relationships take time to build.
Kanyere and her colleagues seem to be going in the right direction. So are groups like the Uganda Carnivores Program [website | Facebook], who treat the immediate community as partners. When you have a few minutes, check out their site and acquaint yourself with their work.
Queen Elizabeth National Park – Practical Matters
Going it alone?
It’s certainly possible to visit the park on your own, but will involve considerable planning, from organizing and paying your entry, game drive and boat launch fees to organizing and scheduling Ugandan Wildlife Authority (UWA) guides, that are often mandatory, on the game drives. Considering the wealth of knowledge the trained guides from most outfitters have and share, the money you may save won’t necessarily be well earned.
If you want to limit your budget to the max and go solo, your best option is to head to Kasese and shop around for a car and driver and negotiate a rate. Expect to pay $120-150 per day. Be very careful to note what fees, if any, they’re including in the rates they quote.
To help on that count, note that daily entry fees for Queen Elizabeth National Park for the 2016-17 season are US$40 for foreign non-residents, $30 for foreign residents and UGX 15,000 for citizens of East African Community member states: Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda.
Driving can and will be slow and bumpy; potholes and small craters are common.
Best time to visit
For wildlife viewing, the dry season — June-August and January-February– are best, when animals concentrate and congregate near water holes, small lakes and rivers. Our trip coincided with two partially rainy days which meant we missed the crocodiles on the Kazinga Channel and the tree-climbing lions that hang out –yes, quite literally– in the large fig trees of the Ishasha sector. Weather happens. Don’t blame your guide.
Suggested length of stay?
There are numerous two and three day options to be found and/or created. If you can pull it off, I definitely suggest a three-day option; it’s more relaxing, casual and complete. You’ve come this far. Do yourself a favor and don’t leave sooner than you have to.
Numerous options are available, from budget camping, to mid-range cottages like ours, to high-end traditional safari lodges and glamping. The Pumba Safari Cottages were part of our all-inclusive package purchased via Karumuna Safaris. From start to finish, our experience with both was excellent.
Queen Elizabeth National Park – Image Galleries
Next up, several galleries, beginning with these Ugandan Kob pictured in the Kasenyi Plains section of the park.
A type of antelope found in Sudan, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo and Ethiopia, its reddish-brown color distinguishes it from other kob subspecies. The last three in this set are of a kob missing one of his horns, presumably lost in a fight.
Cape Buffalo – Ishasha Sector
Next up, a series of shots of the Cape Buffalo, one of Africa’s ‘Big Five’ pictured in the park’s southern Ishasha sector. They’ll forever remain fixed in my mind for two reasons: their intimidating fused horns and their apparently symbiotic relationship with red and yellow-billed oxpeckers. The colorful birds derive their primary nourishment from the bugs, ticks and maggots they pluck from the buffalo who in turn remain relatively well-groomed. The birds also use buffalo hair to line their nests. A few photos below show a wounded buffalo; one oxpecker tended to the wound continuously as we passed.
Ugandan Kob – Ishasha sector
Another selection of Ugandan Kob photos, taken in park’s southern Ishasha sector. They were much more plentiful there, and allowed us to get quite close.
Topi – Ishasha sector
And finally, a Topi, a somewhat oddly shaped antelope with an elongated head, distinct humps on its upper back and patches of purple on its legs. They ran and mixed openly with the kobs. Their look was long and sincere.
Ishasha sector Landscapes
To give you a better idea of the area, here are some images of the park’s southern Ishasha sector, which borders Congo’s Virunga National Park to the west.
Kasenyi Plains Landscapes
And finally, some landscapes of the Kasenyi Plains areas in the park’s northern reaches. These were all taken within a few kilometers of the equator.
Queen Elizabeth National Park
Fort Portal-Mpondwe Road, Uganda
Phone:+256 41 4355000 Website (via the Uganda Wildlife Authority)