Mgahinga Gorilla National Park

Located in the far southwest of Uganda, bordering Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, it is only 34 km2 Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. Despite its small area, this park is home to one of the rarest animals in the world: the mountain gorilla.

In 1930, the then British Protectorate founded the Gorilla Game Sanctuary with the aim of protecting mountain gorillas and other wildlife. After changing its size and destination several times in the following years, the park became a national park in 1991 and was named Mgahinga Gorilla National Park.

The park is named after the lowest of the three extinguished volcanoes that lie in the park, the Gahinga. The name Gahinga means “a lot of stones.” It is derived from the farmers’ habit of putting together stones they found on their land in piles so that ploughing could take place.

The other two volcanoes are known as Muhavura and Sabinyo. Muhavura means “the guide.” This more than 4,100 m high volcano can be seen far in the vicinity and is therefore a beacon for travelers. Sabinyo means “the old man’s teeth.” The Sabinyo, the oldest of the three volcanoes, has several buds that resemble the worn teeth of an old man.

The problems of Mgahinga Gorilla National Park

When the national park was established, the authorities encountered quite a few problems. Firstly, the fast-growing population that needed more and more space to live and build an existence. The ongoing fighting between rebels and Ugandan forces in the border area also caused a great deal of unrest.

In the past, the park has been reduced to provide the locals with farmland. The ancient jungle was cleared and slowly but surely arable land was found in its place. In 1991, when the park was founded, part of the population was moved and part of the farmland was rejoined. However, it will be a long time before the bare farmland looks like it did in the old days.

Another major problem was the fact that the population was used to hunting the animals in the jungle. Unfortunately, mountain gorillas were also killed because of the bows that were put in place to catch diver and forest buck, for example. Poachers killed half of the forest elephant population for the ivory.

The cattle kept by the locals were led through the jungle to water places. This led to destruction of the jungle, pollution and the outbreak of diseases under the wild.

Fortunately, Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is now better protected because the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) involves locals in decisions about the park. Part of the revenue from the park benefits the locals. For example, schools have been built. Locals also enjoy income from the arrival of travelers who want to visit the park and, for example, buy souvenirs or need sleeping space. From the locals, the people who work in the park itself are also recruited. Think rangers, porters and administrative staff.

The locals are allowed to harvest bamboo shoots periodically in the national park, with the aim of planting and growing them on their own land. Bamboo is often used for building scaffolding in construction and for deposits for livestock.

A good example of how the park authorities and locals work together is the construction of the so-called buffalo wall or buffalo wall. This is a 9 km long and 1 m high stone wall that prevents the buffalos in the park from entering the agricultural area and prevents the cattle from entering the park.

The different vegetation zones in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park

Anyone who visits Mgahinga Gorilla National Park and wants to climb one of the volcanoes or perhaps goes in search of golden meerkats or mountain gorillas, passes through four vegetation zones. The mountain forest zone, the bamboo zone, the subalpine zone and the alpine grasslands and mountain tundra zone.

The mountain forest zone consists of open forest land, overgrown with herbs, groundcovers and various arches. After the mountain forest zone you enter the bamboo zone. Here grows the mountain bamboo that can reach a height of 12 m. However, in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, bamboo does not exceed 4 m with a diameter of 5 cm. It grows mainly in areas between 1,800 and 3,300 m in height with more than 1,250 mm of rainfall per year. The bamboo is sometimes so close together that you have to walk around a bit. Bamboo dies after the flowering time that occurs once every 30-40 years. This does not mean that all bamboo dies at once; this always happens in pieces of a few hectares. Bamboo forms about 90% of the food of the mountain gorillas during certain periods of the year.

The subalpine zone can be recognized by the lack of trees. Instead, you will find shrubs, heather that can sometimes take on huge dimensions and ground-covering grasses, orchids, mosses, lichens and liver mosses.

The alpine grasslands and mountain tundra zone are characterized mainly by the presence of giant lobes and giant cross weed. They are very strong plants that can survive in a climate where it is very warm during the day, while at night the temperature drops below freezing.

The animal world in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park

One of the attractions of Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is the presence of the mountain gorilla. Another rare primate species, the golden monkey is also a resident of Mgahinga Gorilla National Park.

Although there has been intensive hunting within the boundaries of the national park, the populations are slowly but surely recovering. Fortunately, there is plenty to see again. In the park there are migratory routes of forest elephants that are passing through Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The buffalo also occurs in a reasonable number. With the aforementioned buffalo wall, the buffalos are kept within the park. Other ungulates in the park include forest buck and giant forest boar.

Although predators such as leopard, serval, spotted hyena and striped jackal are within the boundaries of the park, you need a lot of luck to see them.

Of course, there are also many birds in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. One of the most spectacular birds is the Rwenzori turaco found only in the Albertine Rift Valley. In the treeless zone, in addition to African mountain hawk and white crab, you can also encounter emerald honey dredger and lobelia honey sucker. In the jungle live birds such as Ethiopian monk stialia, star parrot, Rüppells forest singer, king honey dredger and narina trogon. For all birds in the jungle in particular, they are often better heard than seen. But, the keeper wins.