Kibale national park is located in Kabarole district in the Toro subregion in western Uganda. The protected area covers 776 sq.km (296 sq.miles) with an 180 sq.km forest corridor that adjoins Queen Elizabeth national park to the southwest. Notable geographical features around Kibale include the spectacular Ndali-Kasenda volcanic crater filled lakes, which provide a great road trip stopover for keen photographers. The communities living around the Kibale have a population of over 337,800 people according to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS), 2020. The people are mainly interlacustrine Bantu speaking tribes including Batooro, Bafumbira and Bakiga. Those living adjacent to the park are actively involved in sustainable utilization of natural resources to enhance conservation in partnership with Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA). Kibale forest was first gazetted in 1932 and established as a national park in 1993 mainly to protect chimpanzees.
Before being turned into a protected area, Kibale forest significantly provided food and forestry resources to the locals. Due to human encroachment, the southern portion of the park was cut off and is known today as Bigodi wetland sanctuary. Kibale today is surrounded by tea plantations and cultivated farmlands including Bigodi swamp, covering 4 sq.km in length, is a community conserved area. The local people are recognized as sole managers of the swamp through the Kibale Association for Rural Development (KAFRED). Bigodi wetland is open for tourism which generates revenue to address community challenges through projects including clean and safe water, housing for elderly women, culture and crafts promotion.
Flora in Kibale national park
Kibale forest national park has an elevation of 920-1,590 meters above sea level, it’s a hilly region at the base of Rwenzori Mountain Range. The forest ecosystem has a variety of vegetation including moist evergreen broad-leaved forests, tropical highland forest, semi-deciduous tropical forests, which cover 77% of the park. The park also contains grasslands, woodlands, bushlands, swamps and wild conifer plantations. During the dry season (June to September and December to February), the semi-deciduous trees show partial loss of foliage, creating a beautiful scenery in the southern part. Some trees in Kibale forest reach up to 45-meters high with large buttress roots. These gigantic trees occur in the dense tropical highland forest areas in the centre and southern parts of Kibale. In the north of Kibale called Sebitoli, the vegetation contains over 70% regenerating forests with fig trees due to the commercial timber extraction that took place in the 1950s. The region is also home to chimpanzees, which are being studied because of the numerous farms that surround it.
This habitat supports rich biodiversity with 13 primate species, the highest concentration of primates in East Africa. These include over 1,450 chimpanzees, gray cheeked mangabeys, red colobus monkeys, red tailed monkeys, blue monkeys, olive baboons, velvet monkeys, Demidoff’s poto, black and white colobus monkeys, L’hoest monkeys and the Ugandan mangabeys. The protected area is also home to 340 species of birds of which the green-breasted pitta recorded only there. According to Nature Uganda, there are other two forest species including Nahan’s francolin and forest ground thrush found in only 3 Important Bird Areas (IBAs) of Uganda. Common forest species in Kibale include great blue turaco, yellow rumped tinkerbird, masked apalis, yellow spotted barbet, white-napped pigeon, superb sunbird, black-billed turaco, gray-throated tit flycatcher, speckled tinkerbird, white-thighed hornbill, blue-shouldered robin chat and purple -breasted sunbirds.
The grassland corridor linking Kibale to Queen Elizabeth national parks acts as a migrating route for African elephants and buffaloes. Smaller mammal species also occur in Kibale forest including giant forest and common warthogs, bush pigs, bushbucks, blue and red duikers, serval and African golden cats.
UWA estimates that Kibale forest contains over 200 butterflies, making an interesting diversity for butterfly watching enthusiasts. Butterflies of Kibale forest national park include the patterned African map butterfly, common leopard (phalanta phalantha), western blotched leopard, green banded swallowtail (papilio parcos), red glider and Crossley’s Forest queen. Watching butterflies in Kibale is rewarding given that they can be found everywhere in the park. Butterflies are known to feed on the dung of primates as well as mammals that live in Kibale.
With over 1,500 chimpanzees, Kibale forest national park is one of the best destinations to see chimpanzees in the wild. UWA has since 1993 habituated several communities of which four are open for tourism including the most visited Kanyantale troop with over 15 members. Chimpanzee tracking experience in Kibale is conducted twice daily; at Kanyanchu, the park visitor center, a morning session starts at 8:00 am and in the afternoon at 2:00pm. The chance of meeting our closest relatives is 99% better at Kibale forest than when tracking in Kyambura gorge, Budongo and Kalinzu forest reserves. Chimps can be observed feeding on forest floor or in tree canopies during the fruiting season. The best time for chimpanzee tracking in Kibale is the dry season when the forest trails are dry, between June to September and December to February. Hiking can be challenging due to the nature of terrain. However, a visitor who may need help whilst hiking can hire a porter at an extra cost of $30.
Chimpanzee habituation experience in Kibale national park
Chimpanzee habituation is meant for those intending to spend more time with chimps and learn about their social behavior. The experience entails visiting wild chimps that are not fully accustomed to human presence. This means that the chimps may be fearsome when visitors approach them but the encounters might still be up-close. What makes habituation experience interesting is that you will get to follow chimps from morning till noon. With the help of habituators, researchers, UWA guides and trackers, you’re able to study the social behavior of chimps including nesting, grooming, foraging and hunting for food. The session also involves collecting data on how chimps are responding to visitors on a daily basis.
Kibale night forest walk
The night forest walk offers an opportunity to listen to the sounds of nature. You might spot some nocturnal creatures such as bushbabies, frogs and insects. The walk begins at 7:00 pm in the evening and lasts for 1 hour or so. Booking is available at the Kanyanchu visitor center.
Bigodi swamp walk
Bigodi swamp is 4.6 sq.km from Kibale forest national park, making it easy to access for a swamp walk usually done in the afternoon after chimp tracking. Bigodi’s big attractions are the over 200 species of birds and 8 primate species including the black and white colobus monkeys, red colobus monkeys, blue monkeys, velvet monkeys. The swamp is also home to antelope Sitatunga, though not easy to spot. The nature trails and boardwalks allow visitors to access the interior and walk through the swamp. Having a tour guide will help you to spot birds and primates as well as identify some of the medicinal plants and those that women use to weave baskets and mats. Visiting Bigodi helps the community to sustainably manage the resources and continually benefit tourism and conservation.
In addition to the swamp walk, visitors can also take a walk through the community and visit a herbalist for his stunning metaphysics.
Ngogo chimpanzee research
The purpose of Ngogo Chimpanzee Project in Kibale forest national park is to undertake scientific research on the chimp’s ecology in relation to other wildlife and surrounding communities. Dr. Thomas Struhsaker who founded the Makerere University Biological Field Station in the 1970s has become one of the earliest field investigations on primate ecology in Africa. The Ngogo Chimpanzee Project Inc. is a Massachusetts-based corporation that is exempt from federal income tax under Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)(3). Those intending to participate in learning about the behaviour of chimps, Ngogo project offers internship opportunities for researchers and biologists.
Kibale Forest has a variety of lodging options, including super-luxury, mid-range and budget lodges. The majority of the lodges are outside the park, except Primate Lodge, which is inside the forest next to the visitor centre. When booking accommodation through a tour operator, you should ask about its location to determine the driving distance to Kanyanchu visitor centre. It’s also crucial to know the atmosphere given that some of the accommodations are located on the edge of crater lakes including Ndali, Kyaninga lodge and crater safari lodges.
How to get there
Kibale forest national park (KNP) is 334 km (5-hour drive) west of Kampala capital city, 244 km (4-hour drive) south west of Murchison Falls and 120 km (2-hour drive) north of Queen Elizabeth National Park. Fort Portal tourism city, the nearest town, is 32 km (40 min drive) away. The park can also be reached by air through the Kasese airport, which is 64.2 km (1-hour 34 min drive) to Kanyanchu, the park headquarters.