Uganda is known as the ‘Pearl of Africa’ and is a fantastic place to visit to see wildlife. The Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary is located in Nakasongola around 170km from Uganda’s capital Kampala and it takes around 3.5 hours to reach it on the Gulu highway. It’s possible to stop to admire the Nile en route (the source of the Nile is in Jinja, around 70km from Kampala) and meet a few baboons by the roadside – carefully and from a distance.
We visited Ziwa on our way to the Murchison Falls National Park. The park itself is the largest in Uganda and four of the so-called Big Five game animals can be found there. All except rhinoceros.
The southern white rhino population of Uganda used to be vast but they were poached virtually to extinction, the rhino horn sadly being considered to be a rare and valuable medicine in other countries. Six rhinos were reintroduced to Ziwa between 2001 and 2006 and they have managed to breed in the intervening time so that there are now over 30 rhinos.
There are a number of differences between black rhinos and white rhinos. The most obvious is in the shape of their mouths. There isn’t really any difference in their colourings or markings, all rhinos are grey, but it is thought that the name ‘white’ might have derived from the Afrikaans term ‘weidt’, which means ‘wide’, a reference to the rhino’s mouth, which is flat and broad in shape, compared with the black rhino, which has a hooked lip. White rhino also have a longer front horn. White rhino tend to feed on grass whereas their black counterparts eat bushes and leaves. And white rhino are generally thought to be less aggressive and inquisitive than black, which was good to know as we those were the ones we would be tracking.
When visiting Ziwa you wouldn’t know you are in a sanctuary – at 70 square kilometres the area of the land that the rhinos can roam through is vast. It is nothing like a zoo or even a safari park, it feels like savannah wilderness.
What was very lovely was being able to do a walking safari. In Queen Elizabeth National Park we weren’t even allowed to walk from our bedroom tent to the main lodge at the camp, without being accompanied by a gun-bearing ranger just in case any of the local lions were feeling peckish.
The Rhino Ranch and the Briefing
Rhino tracking is available from 7am until 5pm daily. It currently costs $50 for adults and $30 for children (2023). Payments are cashless these days. The price of entry to the ranch includes the rhino walking safari. Birdwatchers may like to know that there are also birding walks available, particularly looking for shoebills. If you stay overnight at the lodge you can also enjoy a night-time walk.
We travelled out to where the rhinos were located and were given a safety briefing. We were to walk together in small groups and stay downwind from the rhino. Rhinos have a great sense of smell but appalling eyesight. They can move very quickly if they want to. If they charge, you are advised to run away in a zig-zag pattern and try to climb a tree if possible. This was consistent with the briefing when on a walking safari in Chitwan, Nepal (although we weren’t lucky in seeing any rhino on that trip). Looking around the area, there didn’t seem to be too many trees that would be robust enough to support us in the event of us encountering a grumpy rhino, so we made sure we followed our guide’s instructions at all times.
Safari At The Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary
Walking through the bush we spotted signs of other creatures living in the area.
We found a discarded snake skin in the grass, although the snake itself was nowhere to be found. Most snakes in Uganda slither off when they feel the vibration of visitors’ footsteps, the exception being the lazy puff adder, which often suns itself on footpaths and can be quite aggressive. It is responsible for most snake bites in the region. For this reason when we went walking we wore sturdy walking boots and long trousers.
We also came across some Uganda Kob who were frolicking in the grassland. We would see these lovely creatures, a type of antelope, bouncing through the grassland throughout our Uganda trip.
As continued our walk we noticed our guide signalling to a ranger a few hundred metres away. The ranger beckoned us over. We carefully circled a small copse and to our delight saw a mother and her child, quietly grazing together. We managed to get within a few metres of these marvellous – and enormous – creatures.
The rangers keep watch on the rhinos 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They are constantly in touch with each other via mobile phone and radio links and they monitor the rhinos in order to protect them from poachers. There used to be a system whereby the rhinos were given radio tracking collars so that they could be monitored remotely, but sadly poachers managed to hack into them with devastating consequences. For this reason, humans are assigned to watch them, which provides much needed protection.
We continued the walk through the grassland and came across another rhino, a male, snoozing in the shade of a tree. He was totally unperturbed by us.
It is possible to stay overnight at Ziwa and enjoy other activities such as a canoe safari or night-time walks but we had to leave in order to reach Murchison Falls before nightfall.
Even though our visit was for just a couple of hours, the trip to the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary was magical. It was particularly exciting to be able to walk through the savannah and get so close to these magnificent endangered creatures. It was also an ideal stopping point on the way to Murchison Falls from Uganda’s capital Kampala.