Mgahinga Gorilla National Park
Home Of The Golden Monkeys & Mountain Gorillas
Mgahinga Gorilla National Park
Mgahinga Gorilla National Park sits high in the clouds, at an altitude of between 2,227 meter and 4,127 meter. As its name suggests, it was created to protect the rare mountain gorillas that inhabit its dense forests, and it is also an important habitat for the endangered golden monkey.
As well as being important for wildlife, the park also has a huge cultural significance, in particular for the indigenous Batwa pygmies. This tribe of hunter-gatherers was the forest’s ‘first people’ and their ancient knowledge of its secrets remains unrivalled.
Uganda’s smallest park (33.7 km²) protects mountain gorillas and other fauna on the Ugandan slopes of the Virunga volcanoes. Though small in size, Mgahinga contains a dramatic, panoramic backdrop formed by three volcanoes. Mgahinga has one habituated gorilla group.
The park’s most striking features are its three conical, extinct volcanoes, part of the spectacular Virunga Range that lies along the border region of Uganda, Congo and Rwanda. Mgahinga forms part of the much larger Virunga Conservation Area which includes adjacent parks in these countries. The volcanoes’ slopes contain various ecosystems and are biologically diverse, and their peaks provide a striking backdrop to this gorgeous scenery. The National Park covers the slopes of Muhuvura, Gahinga and Sabinyo at an altitude of between 2,227 meter near Ntebeko Park HQ and 4,127 meter on the summit of Mt. Muhuvura. Though small in size, just 33.7 km², it adjoins Volcanoes NP in Rwanda and Virunga NP in Congo.
Collectively, these three parks form the trans-boundary Virunga Conservation Area (VCA). The most famous inhabitant of Mgahinga and the VCA is the endangered mountain gorilla. Gorilla conservation on the Virungas dates back to 1925 when the Belgians gazetted the portion of the range in present day Congo and Rwanda as a national park to protect mountain gorillas. The British administration declared the Ugandan section as a game sanctuary in 1930. This was upgraded to national park status in 1991.
Mgahinga’s three volcanoes provide a dramatic and distinctive backdrop to regional scenery and each has been named descriptively in the local language. Gahinga is the smallest of the Virunga peaks and its name means ‘small pile of stones;’ a comparison with the cairns piled by local farmers when clearing boulder-strewn land. The lofty Muhuvura is an important landmark and its name means ‘the guide,’ while that of the distinctive Mt. Sabinyo, with its rough, jagged crown, translates as ‘old man’s teeth.’
Mgahinga Gorilla NP is home to 76 mammal species, of which the best known is the mountain gorilla. Roughly half of the total population (780) of this endangered ape lives on the Virungas and half in nearby Bwindi Impenetrable NP. The bamboo zone in Mgahinga is also home to another endangered primate, the golden monkey which occurs only in the bamboo forests of the Virungas. The endangered golden monkey is endemic to the Albertine Rift, and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park offers a rare chance to track these striking creatures, high in the dense bamboo forests on the Gahinga trail. There is an estimated 3,000 – 4,000 individuals in the Virunga area which 42 – 60 are habituated in Mgahinga.
Other large mammals include elephant, buffalo, leopard and giant forest hog though these are rarely encountered in the dense forest. The varied habitats of Uganda’s smallest park make it home to a variety of birds with 179-184 species recorded. The list includes the Ibis, Pin-tailed Whydah, Speckled Mousebird, Stone Chat, Grey-capped Warbler, Wax Bills, Yellow-vented Bulbul, Firefinch, White-naped Raven, Black Kite, Rwenzori Turaco, Blue-headed Coucal, Paradise Fly-catcher, Rwenzori Batis, Double-collared Sunbird, Rwenzori Nightjar.
More Info On The Activities
Ntebeko Visitor Centre
The Visitor Centre at Ntebeko is the trailhead for nature walks, volcano climbs, and golden monkey and gorilla tracking. Exhibits inside the building explore themes relating to the Virunga environment. A trail along the adjacent drystone Buffalo Wall (built to keep animals out of neighbouring farmland) provides good birding and views of the park’s dramatic volcanic backdrop.
Following a trail of trampled and snapped vegetation across the slopes of the Virungas to spend an hour in the company of mountain gorillas ranks among the world’s most sought after wildlife encounters. Gorilla tracking starts daily at 8 am at the Ntebeko Visitor Centre and typically lasts 3 to 5 hours. Note that visitors participating in gorilla tracking must be aged 15 or over.
Golden Monkey Tracking
Though the gorillas hog the limelight, they are not the only endangered primates on the Virungas. The volcanoes are the last viable stronghold of the golden monkey which can be tracked through its bamboo habitat on the slopes of Mt. Gahinga. As with gorillas, contact time with this rare Albertine rift endemic is limited to an hour. Visitors who sign up for the habituation experience, however, can spend all day following this striking orange-coated monkey in the company of researchers.
Mgahinga Gorilla NP rises upwards to three of the Virunga’s six volcanic summits, all of which can be climbed in a day. Views from the peaks – into Rwanda and Congo, and towards the rift valley and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest – more than justify the effort. The park’s highest peak is Muhavura. Its 4,127 meter summit is adorned by a crystal clear crater lake, 40 meter in diameter, and commands panoramic views along the length of the Virunga chain. Muhuvura is the only mountain in SW Uganda to display the full range of altitudinal vegetation zones peculiar to East Africa’s highest mountains. The hike to the top passes through montane forest, bamboo stands and heather groves, before encountering bizarre forms of giant lobelias and groundsels at the summit. Mount Gahinga (3,474 meter) is the smallest of the Virunga volcanoes and its bamboo-covered slopes rise up to a lush, swamp-filled crater, about 180 meter wide. The jagged crown of Sabinyo (3,669 meter) bears several summits divided by deep gorges and ravines. Some steep and vertiginous sections, including an ascent of a fixed ladder, must be negotiated to reach the summit and enjoy the rare privilege of standing 3,669 meter high whilst in 3 countries at once.
Keen birders can seek rare Albertine Rift endemics and other forest birds in a range of scenic locations that include the Sabinyo Gorge (prime habitat for the beautiful Rwenzori Turaco), the saddle between Mounts Gahinga and Sabinyo, and the Boundary Trail at Ntebeko, with its incomparable volcanic backdrop.
The Batwa Trail
For generations, Mgahinga’s dense forests were home to the indigenous Batwa Pygmies, hunter-gatherers and warriors, who depended on the forest for shelter, food and medicine. Today, Batwa guides lead visitors through the lower slopes of the forests, introducing them to their old home and demonstrating the skills they used to survive in it. The highlight of the Batwa Trail is the descent into the Garama Cave, the largest of numerous lava tubes with which the slopes of the Virungas are riddled. Once the home of the Batwa king, this is the setting for the finale to the Batwa Trail; a memorable subterranean performance of music and dance.