Semuliki National Park sprawls across the floor of the Semliki Valley on the remote, western side of the Rwenzori. This Uganda national park is dominated by the easternmost extension of the great Ituri Forest of the Congo Basin.
This is one of Africa’s most ancient and bio-diverse forests; one of the few to survive the last ice age, 12-18,000 years ago.
The Semliki Valley contains numerous features associated with central rather than eastern Africa. Thatched huts are shaded by West African oil palms; the Semliki River (which forms the international boundary) is a miniature version of the Congo River, the forest is home to numerous Central African wildlife species.
The local population includes a Batwa pygmy community that originated from the Ituri. As a result, this park provides a taste of Central Africa without having to leave Uganda.
While Semuliki’s species have been accumulating for over 25,000 years, the park contains evidence of even older processes. Hot springs bubble up from the depths to demonstrate the powerful subterranean forces that have been shaping the rift valley during the last 14 million years.
History of Semuliki National Park
The Toro-Semliki Wildlife Reserve entered European consciousness on March 14, 1864, when a Samuel Baker expedition crested the rift escarpment bringing an immense body of water into view.
Baker named it Lake Albert (Bishop, 1967). If any land was visible across the lake, it would have been a peninsula that juts northward into the lake, now the site of the fishing village of Ntoroko.
Scattered remains of pottery on exposed soil in the reserve suggests Toro-Semliki was rather densely populated in the distant past, at least in comparison to current and historic numbers.
Whatever the size of the population in the distant past, it was dramatically depopulated between 1898 and 1915 when a sleeping sickness epidemic swept through the area (Bishop, 1967; Verner and Jenik, 1978).
Those who survived the epidemic were evacuated by the Uganda Protectorate government (Verner and Jenik, 1978), leaving the area that is now the reserve nearly empty.
Authorities seized on the opportunity provided by the exodus from the area to create a conservation area. Thus, the approximately 548 km2 ‘Toro Game Reserve’ was gazetted in 1929 by Uganda Protectorate General Notice 546.
The high density of Uganda kob in the area was a crucial factor the reserve’s creation, and the reserve was conceived as a key habitat for conserving Uganda’s dwindling Uganda kob population (Lamprey and Michelmore, 1996).
Since being gazetted, the name of the reserve was changed frequently. The Toro Game Reserve was renamed the Semuliki Game Reserve, then the Toro Wildlife Reserve, then the Semliki Valley Wildlife Reserve, then the Semliki-Toro Wildlife Reserve, and finally to the Toro-Semliki Wildlife Reserve.
From 1932 to 1993, the area covered by Semuliki National Park was managed as a forest reserve, initially by the colonial government and then by the Ugandan government’s Forest Department.
It was made a national park by the government in October 1993 to protect the forests as an integral part of the protected areas of the Western Rift Valley.
Biodiversity at Semuliki National Park
The flora and fauna show strong affinities with the Congo basin forest with many species reaching the eastern limit of their ranges in Semuliki Forest. The flora is dominated by a single tree species, Cynometra alexandri, mixed with tree species of a more evergreen nature.
Swamp forest communities are also found in Semuliki National Park. The fauna of the forest is outstandingly rich and includes more than 400 bird species of which 216 (66% of the country’s total) are true forest birds such as the rare Sassi’s Olive Greenbul (Phyllastrephus lorenzi) and Forest Ground Thrush (Turdus oberlaenderi).
Nine species of hornbills have been recorded as well. 75% of the Charaxes butterfly genuses are found in this forest, 441 species of bird, one species of primate, and one of butterfly are only recorded from this area in the East African part of their ranges.
The forest is home to 53 mammals of which 27 are large mammals. 11 species are endemic to the park including the pygmy antelope and two flying squirrel species. It is also home to the peculiar water chevrotain, known as the “fanged deer”
Mammals include leopards, hippos, elephant, forest buffalo, hippopotamus, civets, potto, bush babies, mona monkeys, water chevrotains, and nine species of Duikers, including the Bay Duiker (Cephalophus dorsalis) and the Pygmy Flying Squirrel (Idiuus zenkeri) that occur nowhere else in East Africa.
Top Things to Do in Semuliki National Park
There are many things to do and see in the Semliki while on African safari in Uganda. The sights are quite different from the rest of Uganda, sights that are more familiar to travelers who have been to Central and West Africa.
There huts that are thatched with West African Oil Palms, even the Semliki River is like a miniature Congo River, the Bwamba Forest is the home of species of mammals and birds that are normally found in Central Africa.
The original dwellers of the ancient rainforests still live here, the Batwa Pygmies and other communities who migrated to this area over the centuries such as the Bambwa farmers.
The Bakonzo are found cultivating the foothills of the Rwenzori Mountains of the Moon and the Batuku cattle keepers, pastoralists who lived on the open plains of the Semliki Valley.
The Bambwa Forest is the only lowland-tropical (670 to 760 meters above sea-level) forest jungle in East Africa – home to 441 recorded species of birds and 53 mammals. The 441 species of birds make up 40% of Uganda’s total Bird Species all contained in this most amazing valley of natural wonders.
One of the things you do not want miss at Semliki National Park are the two Hot Springs –there is the male hot-spring Bitende is about 12 meters in diameter, the female hot spring is called Nyasimbi and is a boiling geyser which spurts out bubbling water and steam about 2 meters into the air.
The people living near the hot-springs used to boil food in the hot-spring pools, even now you can bring some eggs along and have them boiled here.
Do not get near the water of the two springs – they have a temperature of around 100 Degrees Celsius. The surrounding pools are also quite hot.
This is a guided Tour with lots of primates and birds to see.
The Bambuti Pygmies live on both side of the Semliki River and are closely related to the Basu Pygmies of the Democratic Republic of the Congo rather than to Batwa Pygmies around Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and Mgahinga Gorilla Park.
Most safari companies refer to the Bambuti Pygmies as Batwa, but they are not and their culture and ways are different from each other. Both have lived in the forests for thousands of year.
The Bambuti Pygmies are much smaller in number than the Batwa People. Both were evicted from their ancient forests, though the Bambuti have limited hunting and gathering rights. They also can legally grow marijuana and smoke it in there.
The Bambuti can be visited and today have their own guides, in the past they had non-Bambuti guides who stole their money causing animosity between the Bambuti and Visitors, which has changed today.
Hiking – Nature Walks:
There are numerous Hiking and Nature Trails that are guided, depending on your preferences as to want to do and see such as hippos, crocodiles, birds, monkeys for example.
The length of hikes and nature walks can be from a few hours to an all-day hike. One of the things on any hike is to be dressed right such as boots, long sleeved shirt, and light rain jacket, day-pack with lunch and bottled water for the activity. A hat is also a good idea.
Depending on which trail you take you will also encounter numerous species of birds, primates, at time even forest elephants, along the Semliki River there hippos and crocodiles.
You can trek Chimpanzees here – they are presently being habituated by Indiana University. Chances of seeing chimpanzees on a guided trek are not as good as at Kibale Forest with 1500 chimpanzees, the more they are habituated, and the more likely you are going to see them on a trek.
For Chimpanzee trekking it is best wear the right clothing for your protection from nettles, thorns, branches, long-sleeved shirt, long-trousers, light rain-jacket, you are in a rainforest, lunch, 1 1/2 liters of bottled water, snacks such as dried fruit.
The trek starts at 8 am and can last 4 hours or longer, you just might see other primates such as baboons,grey-cheeked mangabey, black-and-white colobus, Central African red colobus, blue, red-tailed, de Brazza’s, vervet, and Dent’s mona monkeys.
Birding in the Semliki Valley:
Birders will have a great time in the Semliki Valley. There are over 440 recorded species of birds found here in the Semliki Valley, 40% of Uganda’s total species and 66% of the forest birds found in Uganda.
There are also many birds found in this area that are normally found in the Congo region of Africa but also some that are only found in the Albertine Western Rift.
Keep a lookout for birds that include Nkulengu Rail, Yellow-throated Cuckoo, Piping Hornbill, Red-billed Dwarf Hornbill, Black Dwarf Hornbill, White-crested Hornbill, Black-casqued Wattled Horbill, Red-rumped Tinkerbird, African Piculet, White-throated Blue Swallow and Yellow-throated Nicator.
There are also Leaf-love, Swamp Palm Bulbul, Lemon-bellied Crombec, Maxwell’s Black Weaver, Crested Malimbe, Red-bellied Malimbe, Blue-billed malimbe, Chestnut-breasted Negrofinch, Orange-cheeked Waxbill. You can also take a guided boat ride on Lake Albert in pursuit of the Shoebill Stork.
There are about 53 different different kinds of mammals found in the Semliki Valley. 27 of these are larger animals and 11 of them are only found in this area such as pygmy antelopes, two different kinds of flying squirrels , hopefully you will also see the unique water chevron that has been named the fanged deer.
The Semliki Valley is also home to forest elephants and buffaloes which are smaller versions of their savanna-dwelling relatives
There are also lions and leopards found here. When it comes to Lions, at one time the largest lions in African were purported to be in the Semliki Valley and the males had thick black mane. You can take day-time and Nocturnal Game Drives while on Uganda safari to Semuliki National Park.