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11 March, 2013

Top 6 Animal Encounters in Uganda

Gorilla Uganda
By Shara Johnson from SKJtravel:
In 2012 I went to Uganda to volunteer in the Uganda Wildlife Education Center for a month. The UWEC takes in rescued wildlife from throughout the country but has no rehabilitation facilities to release them back into the wild after treatment, so typically the majority stays at the center in semi-natural habitat enclosures where the public can see them. After my time there, I traveled around the country to various national parks to see the amazing diversity of wildlife the country protects within its borders. Uganda is often referred to as "The Pearl of Africa" and it’s not difficult to understand why, with its lush jungle environment and copious wildlife, Lake Victoria and the headwaters of the Nile River. As wildlife viewing was for me (and for most tourists) the chief attraction in Uganda, here are a few of my favorite and most memorable wildlife encounters

1. Mountain Gorillas

Mountain Gorillas
Mountain Gorillas
"You are very lucky!" my guide said to me. He could hardly believe it himself, so unprecedented was it that through an extremely unusual set of circumstances, I ended up being the only person tracking that morning. Typically 7 or 8 people are on an outing. “So lucky!” he reiterated. 

Because it was just the two of us and our armed ranger, we made good time through the aptly-named "impenetrable forest" of Bwindi in the southwest corner of Uganda. Trackers go out early in the morning to locate the habituated groups, then the guide communicates with them via walkie-talkie so the trackers can direct him. Much of the hiking is completely overland, no trails, where machetes and walking sticks are crucial to fight your way through the jungle.

Relatively quickly, by primate tracking standards, we came upon a group of 12 gorillas in an open ravine. A few weeks earlier, I had tracked chimpanzees in the wild and they were quite far away high in the trees, and my 250 zoom lens was pretty puny in that situation. So I was astounded at how close we got to the gorillas. This won’t be every visitor’s luck to be so close in such an open area, but it was mine. The trackers led me further and further into the middle of the group, so the gorillas were on all sides of me. Some lounging and grooming one another, most of them eating, a toddler playing, and one very large mother suckling and cuddling her 3-month old infant. 

I had them all to myself. Also surprising, was the fact that you could look them in the eyes. Except not if one is charging you, the guide cautioned. Otherwise, it was OK to engage in this intimate form of contact. It was magical, standing there in the primeval jungle with these evolutionary cousins so close they could almost be our siblings – their movements, their behaviors, their eyes just like mine; the way the infant crawled over his mother, the way she held him to her chest … they could hardly be more human. That is until they walk by and you can viscerally experience their enormous, ponderous weight as they delicately thunder through the jungle. That seems like an oxymoron, but it’s the best way I can think of to accurately describe their passage … thunderous yet delicate.

2. Chimpanzees

Wild Chimp Budongo National Forest
Wild Chimpanzee
In addition to working with them at the UWEC, I also took a tracking trip to see them in the wild in Budongo National Forest, a lush rainforest between Entebbe and Murchison Falls National Park. While in Budongo, I saw seven very young chimps playing in the tree tops and three adult females. This was a thoroughly delightful and special experience, but spending time with the chimps at the UWEC was a completely unique experience. My favorite part of the daily routine as a volunteer was feeding the chimps porridge.

They spent the night indoors and in the morning were let out to their island through a run – a sort of tunnel of chain-link fencing. At the end of the run, just before the high gate that opened to the island, we fed them porridge and sometimes bananas. The littlest one, Nepa, could fit her hand and arm through the fencing to hold her own cup and serve herself. For the other chimps, we poured the porridge into their eager, open mouths. This is when we could inspect them closely for any health issues or injuries. But mostly, this is when I learned a lot about their personalities and the social structure of dominance. 

Feeding Chimps in Uganda
Feeding the Chimps
I had to play a lot of mind games to keep the dominant ones from hogging all the porridge and bananas, for they would push the subordinates out of the way. Sometimes, no matter how sneaky I thought I was, I couldn’t fool a dominant male into thinking I’d already given out all the food; my plan was to fake them out so they’d go on to the island and I could give some to the smaller, younger chimps still waiting in the run hoping for some breakfast. You’d be surprised how difficult it can be to outwit a chimp.

3. Python 

Sick Python
Sick Python
This encounter begins with me wide-eyed and squealing (as a form of suppressed scream), about to faint with terror. In retrospect, though, I consider it a highlight because I learned to appreciate an animal I had hitherto utterly feared and loathed. Not that I’m going to go out and adopt a bunch of snakes … 

A python was brought to the UWEC for rescue, found locked inside a wooden box. It was huge, in my estimation, but the zookeepers told me it was unhealthy and dehydrated. I had my camera with me at the time and I took some pictures of the snake. Suddenly Kayondo grabbed my camera and said, “Let’s get a picture of you girls with the snake.” The other current volunteer (also an American) was standing beside me, and before either of us could make a getaway, Wako was on top of us with the snake, draping it around our necks. There was nothing I could do. I think I’m just glad my bladder happened to already be empty at the time. One second after another ticked by with that snake draped around my shoulders, and to my surprise, I was still alive, and the snake was perfectly calm. 

"Smile!" Kayondo was now snapping pictures and I wanted to look brave and cool for posterity. Well, acting brave actually made me brave, and it didn’t take too long for me to adjust to the snake and take a genuine interest in it. Wako took it off of us girls and put it on the ground where we could inspect it. I touched its scales. I was taken aback at how smooth they were, almost like silk when I petted them. “See how the skin is so loose,” Wako said. “That’s the dehydration. This snake should be much larger.” This was a rather shocking statement to me … larger?

Healthy Python Uganda
Healthy Python
Owing to my innate aversion to snakes, I had not spent much time near the snake house at the UWEC. When we carried this ailing python over there to put in with a healthy python, I saw to both my horror and fascination what a healthy python of that length looked like. To imagine running into one of these in the wild made my blood run cold. Again before I could react, the healthy python was draped on top of me in a photo frenzy, only this one was so heavy I could hardly stand up. Check out the size of this monster’s head, held by Wako, just behind my back. The zookeepers come up with names for the snakes who become citizens at UWEC by studying the patterns on their scales … they usually look like some letters of the alphabet, and they derive the name thus. 

4. Gray Crowned Crane

Gray Crowned Crane Uganda
Gray Crowned Crane
"Look there, a grey crowned crane. The national bird of Uganda", my guide, Clovis, pointed across a field as we were walking through the rural countryside near Fort Portal. I was stunned. Sure enough, a group of three was meandering casually through the fields. You should understand, I’ve only seen this bird at the Denver Zoo and it’s my very favorite. I’ve taken a hundred photos of it there. I had hoped to see some wild ones in at least one of the national parks in Uganda. The first park, I struck out. I never expected to see them just randomly hanging out in the crop fields. Clovis was amused by my exclamations. There are birds even more exotic to be found in Uganda, such as the highly endangered shoebill stork – truly a marvelous creature – but this crane was an animal I had so admired in its unfortunate captivity, that it was a personal high to see it in the wild. Later, I would see several in Queen Elizabeth National Park and again amuse my guide, Fred, with my excitement. Living in Colorado, USA, there is no bird approaching the regal form and color of the gray crowned crane. How fabulous it would be, I think, to look out my window one day and see one of these creatures nonchalantly strutting about my yard.

5. Hippos

Hippo in Queen Elizabeth NP
Emphasis on the plural. The Hippo Lady, as I called her, a tourist passenger like myself traveling in a boat along the Kazinga Channel in Queen Elizabeth National Park, had a sense for when a hippo was about to open its mouth wide. She was one of those people who at first grates on your nerves a bit, always pointing stuff out as if she’s the guide. But when I realized how accurate she was with her predictions … "left side (of the boat) near the shore", "those two together on the right side" etc. I’d swivel my camera around to her coordinates and sure enough, 8 times of out 10, the hippo obliged with a nice big yawn. I’d been dying to get some photos of hippos with their mouths open I’d seen hippos elsewhere in Uganda and in South Africa, but they had always denied me a view into those great maws with those thick saber teeth and prominent ridgelines along the roof of their mouths. I was also surprised by their vocalizations … almost pig-like. Very loud pig-like, mind you. For such rotund, generally lethargic creatures, I found they had surprisingly bold personalities. They often seemed a bit maniacal when their mouths were opened full height, with their eyes bulging at the sides of their head. 

6. Leopard

Leopard Uganda
Really this is more a tale of the animal’s tail, as I yelled at my guide/driver, Fred, "Stop!" "Did you see something?" he asked. We’d been driving along at a fair clip. "I’m not sure, but I think so". Fred put the jeep in reverse and back we went. What I thought I had seen was a large white curvy thing that looked more like an animal part than a plant. In the green, green fields, one of these things was not like the other ones. We kept backing up and I was about to lose hope and assume I’d seen nothing but a bush, when suddenly Fred yelped, "There! Good eye! It’s a leopard!" He was nearly as excited as I was.

There were no other safari vehicles around it was just me and Fred and the leopard, and a great wide sky of silence … Fred had even turned off the vehicle. If smiles made noise, then it would have been deafening, but my teeth shone silently, only my camera occasionally clicked. I would end up disappointed that it never focused properly on the big cat, and though I had perfect line of sight, none of the photos were really in focus. But the disappointment was relatively fleeting, for the experience remained the same, photos or no photos: I saw a great big white tail. And at the end of it was a leopard. Pretty cool. The only leopard I’ve seen on the ground in all my time in Africa.

About the Author:

Shara Johnson plots her travels from her home in Nederland, Colorado. She scrapes up travel money hosting other travelers in her B&B studio. 

You can follow her adventures abroad on her narrative travel blog at or on Facebook or Twitter

Freya - Holiday Nomad, a Travel and Photo Blog


  1. Awesome images!
    Looks like a great opportunity for wildlife encounters.That healthy python looks so heavy!


    1. Thanks, Murissa. That python was extremely heavy. It eats 15 chickens every 10 days! :-)

  2. Lovely photos Shara. My favourite is the Hippo :)

    1. Thanks, Agness. I had so much fun capturing the hippos!

  3. Thanks for the into to Shara Johnson and her amazing trip. Fun to scroll through the sweet photos of the Gorillas and chimps to OMG that is one BIG, FREAKY snake!!! *laugh*

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed the photos and taking a little vicarious trip with me! Yeah ... cute gorillas, definitely freaky snake ... a wide spectrum in the animal kingdom. :-)

  4. Thanks for the into to Shara Johnson and her amazing trip. Fun to scroll from sweet photos of Gorillas and Chimps to WHOA! That is one BIG, FREAKY snake!!! *laugh*

  5. So lucky.

    And ended up with so many interesting pictures.

    1. Thanks! Uganda really was a photographer's paradise! :-)

  6. The only animal encounters I've had recently were city rabbits. I'd love to see any of these! Except maybe the python... I'm pretty terrified of snakes too!

    1. If you'd have told me the day before I had that snake draped around my neck that I would have a massive python on my shoulders and that I would live through it, I wouldn't have believed you! It was a good experience.

    2. same here, would love to see all these animals in their natural habitat but definitely NOT the python :-)

  7. Wonderful tales! Sounds like you had quite an adventure there! How was it you were volunteering at the UWEC? Did you have any previous animal care skills?

    1. Hi Cris, forgive the delayed reply. I did not have previous animal care skills. Well, actually I did used to rehab orphaned raccoons for release to the wild, but such experience wasn't necessary. That was one of the beauties of the situation ... anybody can do it. I was simply looking around for volunteer opportunities with some of my favorite animals ... chimpanzees, elephants ... and came across UWEC which was very affordable and had the chimps. If you're interested in it you can read my posts on my website (I think it's listed in my bio). Just beware that the UWEC is super Third-World institution and has some emotional challenges. And you will cut boatloads of food. :-) But I wouldn't trade the experience for the world.

  8. I really want to visit Uganda as part of my world trip and those photographs have definitely inspired me. I'm just trying to add to my travel budget before traveling to Africa as I understand its quite an expensive trip, especially if you want to visit a few African destinations.

    1. wow I'm jealous a world trip sounds awesome.

    2. I would certainly recommend Uganda to anyone, but it is true that it can be expensive. If you go in off-season you may find some more affordable deals. One thing I think many don't realize is that if they want to see elephants and giraffes and leopards, etc., they must go to Kenya or Tanzania or Botswana, etc. Those of course have the iconic open savannah and delta areas, but you can still see those animals in Uganda, and plenty of them. Plus the addition of wild chimpanzees and mountain gorillas. It's more of a one-stop shop than you might realize. Do feel free contact me via my website (listed in my Bio) if you want to ask any questions.


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