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Semliki Reserve is the oldest wilderness reserve in the country, originally gazetted in 1932 as the Toro Game Reserve. Extending from Ntoroko on the southern shores of Lake Albert to the north east of the Bundibugyo road, it has thick swampy grounds close to Lake Albert. The rest of the area is typical savannah interspersed with acacia-combretum woodland. Small patches of borassus palm appear and significant stretches of riparian woods along the river courses.
The scenery is magnificent when flying in by air or driving out by road towards Fort Portal, 2hrs away. From the ground on a clear day, the Congolese Blue Mountains (2500m asl) are clearly visible in the west with the majestic Rwenzoris and their glacial peaks in the north; Lake Albert’s eastern shore culminates at the foot of the sharp Rift Valley escarpment. The valley floor itself is relatively flat and sits at about 600m above sea level.
Unfortunately massive poaching during the unprotected times of Amin’s rule meant many, many of the animals were hunted almost to extinction. To this day, no lion have been sighted in the valley although they are sometimes heard in the far distance. This sad state of affairs was probably brought about because of the famed size of the maned lions that used to be seen frequently throughout the valley.
Since 1997 the populations of animals have started to recover slowly but surely and an indication is the growth of the cob which have recovered from a low of around 1000 in 1997 to around 8000 in 2006 (last count). Buffalo once numbering as low as 50 are now around 1000 and there are also small numbers of elephant and waterbuck.
There are good numbers of primates including 40 habituated chimpanzees in the Mugiri River Forest. Chances of seeing the chimps on half to full day walks are currently around 70%. During this walk there is a chance of seeing the localised forest elephant. Other primates include the black and white colobus, olive baboon, red tailed and vervet monkeys. Primates are rumoured to include lowland gorilla but none have been seen. There are unhabituated chimpanzees, Brazza’s monkeys, grey-cheeked mangabey, black and white colobus and olive baboons. There are some elephant and buffalo with a small range of bush pigs, sitatunga and white bellied duiker.
Leopards are seen relatively frequently and certainly warnings by the olive baboon as to their presence are commonly heard.
A true wilderness
The park’s best asset is it wildness and very low tourist numbers. Birding is one of the biggest attractions with around 350 to 400 bird species present. Big ticks on a bird list would include Abyssinian ground hornbill, marsh tchagra and African crake with a good variety of raptors.
There are night drives in this area and they usually result in good sightings of owl and pennant and standard winged nightjars. It is also a good opportunity to see sleeping nurseries of cob guarded by their ever present mothers and testosterone filled lone males.
One of the best activities is the boat trip on Lake Albert’s muddy waters which not only gives an opportunity to find the reticent shoebill but gives a good look at local village life as you boat slowly across the bay. There is a large colony of red throated bee eaters which are present on the sandbanks near Ntoroko between December and March.
A surprisingly beautiful waterfall which is a replica of the Murchison Falls is found at the foot of the Rift Valley escarpment throwing its water into the lake.
Semliki National Park
Further west of the Semliki Wildlife Reserve is the Semliki National Park – distinctly separated from the reserve but confusingly sounding one and the same. The Bwamba Forest is included in this area and it is not much visited by tourists other than serious birders although there is a very good hot springs in the area.
Situated on the Congolese border and bounded by the Semliki River it is a practically unspoilt tropical lowland forest. As an extension of the massive Ituri Forest which runs all the way to the Congo River, species present in the forest include lowland species found in the Congo Basin.
Around 300 species of butterfly include 46 species of forest swallowtails and 235 moth species. There are over 300 tree species recorded of which 30% do not occur elsewhere in East Africa. There are almost 400 bird species of which 35 are Guinea-Congo forest biome birds. Some of these include spot-breasted ibis, Hartlaub’s duck, Congo serpent eagle, Grant’s blue bill, northern bearded scrub-robin and the Gabon woodpecker.
There is not a very comprehensive list of mammals but they do include the pygmy antelope, two types of flying squirrel and six types of bat. A particularly peculiar antelope is the water chevrotain, a tiny duiker-like ungulate sharing some structural features with pigs and thought to be the predecessor of all deer, cows, giraffe and modern day antelopes!
There is a pygmy village at Ntandi which is informative to visit but be prepared to pay for photographs. The Bambuti regularly smoke marijuana and recent concessions allow them to hunt and fish in the national park although they are restricted from hunting certain species. The country’s oldest inhabitants - there are only around 60 Bambuti left today and interbreeding has meant all of the current teenagers are taller than their forebears.