Queen Elizabeth National Park is Uganda’s second-largest (after Murchison Falls National Park), joint-oldest and most biodiverse national park set in the low-lying Rift Valley where it crosses the equator south of the lofty Rwenzori Mountains and north Kigezi Highlands. Protected as a wildlife reserve the late 1920s, it was gazetted under the name Kazinga National Park in 1952, but renamed two years later to commemorate the first visit by Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip to Uganda. Extending over 1,978 km2, Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP) protects a fabulously diverse landscape of tropical habitats: rolling grassland, moist acacia woodland, tropical rainforest, sheer-sided volcanic calderas, and a variety of wetland habitats including the open water and swamp shores of Lake Edward and Lake George, the 40km-long Kazinga Channel that connects them, and several freshwater and saline crater lakes. Uganda’s busiest safari destination, QENP makes for a convenient stopover en route between Kabale and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. The park’s most popular attraction is a scenic boat trip that runs out of the Mweya peninsula along the Kazinga Channel past large herds of elephant, buffalo, and hippo. But there are plenty of other potential highlights: game drives on the Kisenyi plains; chimp tracking at Kyambura Gorge (inside the park) or Kalinzu Ecotourism Site (outside it); birding and monkey-viewing in Maramagambo Forest; exploring the Katwe or Bunyaruguru crater lakes; and — last but emphatically not least — heading off in search of the legendary tree-climbing lions that inhabit the remote Ishasha plains.
FLORA AND FAUNA
Most of Queen Elizabeth National Park comprises open grassland and savannah, which tends to be moister and woodier in the West than in the East. A variety of thorny acacias predominate in savannah habitats, though a striking feature of the park is it’s high concentrations of the candelabra shrub (Euphorbia candelabrum), a cactus-like succulent that grows to tree-like dimensions along the Kazinga Channel and on the Kasenyi Plains. The park also incorporates substantial areas of papyrus swamps around Lake George, which is listed as a Ramsar wetland, as well the extensive rainforest of Maramagambo Forest and riparian woodland in the Kyambura Gorge (bordering Kyambura Game Reserve) and the Ishasha and various tributary rivers in the Southwest. Queen Elizabeth National Park supports at least 95 mammal species, the highest for any Ugandan national park. Ten primates species are present, including chimpanzee, vervet, blue, red-tailed and L’Hoest’s monkeys, black-and-white colobus and olive baboons. A checklist of around 20 carnivores is headed by lions and leopards, but spotted hyenas and side-striped jackal are also quite common, and a habituated banded mongoose troop is conspicuous on the Mweya peninsula. The most common antelope is the Ugandan kob, some 20,000 of which are resident in the park, but bushbuck, topi and Defassa waterbuck are also locally common, while the elusive semi-aquatic sitatunga occurs in papyrus swamps around Lake George, and four duiker species are primarily confined to the Maramagambo Forest. Buffaloes are common and often reddish in colour due to interbreeding with the redder forest buffalo of the Congolese rainforest. The park’s elephants are also sometimes said to display affinities with the smaller and slightly hairrier forest-dwelling race of elephant found in the DRC. Among other igulates, notable absentees include rhino, giraffe, zebras, but more than 5,000 hippos inhabit the park’s waterways, warthogs are very common, and the Kisenyi Channel is one of the few non-forested places in Africa where giant forest hog are regularly seen. Although it now ranks as Uganda’s most popular safari destination, Some 610 birds species have been recorded in QENP, a remarkable figure for what is a relatively small national park by continental standards (to place this in some perspective, that’s more birds than have ever been seen in the Serengeti or Kruger national park, fine birding destinations that are seven- and ten-times larger than QENP respectively). In addition to 54 raptors, the checklist includes virtually every waterbird species resident in Uganda, and a variety of woodland and forest birds, the latter largely confined to the Maramagambo Forest. Birding anywhere in the park is good, but the Mweya stands out for the myriad waterbirds on the Kazinga Channel, while the riparian forest at Ishasha Sector is a good place to see certain more unusual species.