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Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary Uganda

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.

River Nile Uganda

roadside baboon

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.

Ziwa rhino sanctuary

Ziwa rhino sanctuary

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.

Ziwa rhino sanctuary

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.

Ziwa rhino sanctuary

Ziwa rhino sanctuary

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.

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  1. This looks like it must have been such an exciting trip based on this and your other posts on Uganda. I’d love to visit Africa one day to see some of these animals. Sadly, who knows how much longer we’ll have the chance but it’s encouraging that these rhinos’ numbers have been going up!

    • Thank you so much. It was absolutely brilliant to be able to walk in the bush to see these amazing creatures. We do hope you get to visit Africa one day. And yes, conserving wildlife is so very important so that other people may have a chance to see it in the future.

  2. I am always gathering info on what to see and do in Central Africa for the day I finally get to visit this region of Africa. This is another post that I will bookmark as to where to go.
    The more I read the more it seems that Uganda has so many reserves and attractions relating to animals that I just have to allocate more time to this country alone.
    The pictures are stunning and you were so lucky to be able to get up relatively close to the animals and see nature in the flesh. I hope I am as lucky as you when I get there and can enjoy the scenery as much.
    There was me thinking white and black rhinos were named after their skin colouring when it is actually all about the shape of their mouths and horn. I learned something new here!

    • Thank you! We would definitely recommend plenty of time in Uganda, there is so much to see. We plan to write posts about Murchison Falls and Queen Elizabeth national parks – in the latter you can see tree-climbing lions! On many of our excursions there was a very good chance of seeing wildlife because there are rangers who keep watch over these splendid creatures – it was the same with the gorilla trekking, there was nearly 100% chance of seeing the gorillas (if you were prepared to walk a fair distance, depending on where they were). Do feel free to ask any questions about visiting – we’d be happy to help.

    • Thank you so much – it was an amazing experience. We do hope you get to visit one day.

  3. This must have been such an experience! I can’t imagine being that close, on foot, to these magnificent creatures! That snake skin would make me a little uneasy, lol. It’s so great that they’re working so hard to bring back the rhino population. Cool info about the different mouths, too – I had no idea! The Kob is beautiful, and roadside baboons we’re a great way to start the adventure – like a welcoming committee!

    • It really was fantastic to be able to do a walking safari and to get so close to these amazing creatures. You’re right – the baboons were like a welcoming committee (although we didn’t go near enough for a handshake!!)

  4. This was one of the most exciting articles I’ve read in ages! I was so intrigued to see what happened next and so happy that you got to see a mother and baby. The poaching is truly upsetting but good to know that the breeding worked and they are watched constantly. Astonishing, beautiful animals. Lovely post.

    • Thank you so much! It was a completely brilliant experience and it was a delight to see – and get so close to – the mother and baby. You’re absolutely right, the poaching is terrible but we were really impressed about how the rhino are monitored and how glad we are that the numbers are increasing slowly.

  5. Visiting places like this are at the top of our lists. Such an amazing place and the efforts that the rangers go through to protect the wildlife is simply incredible. Always glad to hear the numbers are increasing.

    • We were so impressed at how the local rangers looked out for the wildlife all over the country. It’s so important to protect wildlife, otherwise we will lose it. We do hope you get to visit, it was a wonderful experience.

  6. What a fascinating sanctuary and such beautiful animals! It’s so sad about the poachers, it really makes me angry to think about it. I had a shiver when seeing the snake skin, definitely long trousers for me!

    • Thank you! Yes, it was brilliant to be able to get so close to them but, you’re right, we needed to be cautious as they are wild animals. We were very impressed at how they were protected.

  7. I’d love to do a safari and to see the white rhino would be incredible. Thanks for all the info, I didn’t know why they were called white rhinos or the difference between them and black rhinos.
    Despite us having snakes here, I still think I’d be scared seeing that snake skin! And daunted when told to run and climb a tree lol
    So happy that these beautiful creatures are being protected.

    • Thank you! We weren’t too worried about seeing the snake skin – our guide was very reassuring that the snake was long gone! It is fantastic that these creatures are protected so well – here’s hoping that the population will continue to grow.

  8. What an amazing experience! Would love to do a safari (or a few!) in Africa one day to see all that wildlife.
    It’s sad to read about poachers though. Especially that it’s even happening in sanctuaries.

    • Thank you so much for your comment. It was really wonderful to be able to get so close to the rhinos. You’re absolutely right, it’s so sad that these remarkable creatures are still being poached but good to know they are protected. Hope you get to do a few safaris in future!

    • Thank you! Yes, a walking safari was such a brilliant way to get close to these magnificent creatures.

  9. Blows my mind how close you got to the rhino mother and her child… I don’t think I’d be brave enough for a walking safari.. Zigzagging and ‘trying to climb a tree’ sounds solid advice, but probably not my thing haha… Uganda will be our next African country after Tanzania in August I think, so I’m taking notes here. Thank you for sharing.

    • Thank you so much. We felt very comfortable doing the walking safari as we were with an experienced guide. It was magical getting so close to these amazing creatures. We hope you manage to get to Uganda – happy to answer any questions you have when you are planning your trip. I know you and Ellie would love it there!

  10. This looked and sounded amazing. I love Uganda. I spent just over a month there during the summer of 2019 doing an internship program in Kampala. I would have loved to visit the places you mentioned, but I wasn’t able to during my trip. Next time! I did, however, go to Jinja and do a white water rafting excursion on the Nile. Totally unlike any other experience I’ve had on the water!!!

    • Spending a month in Uganda must have been fantastic. We heard about the white-water rafting at Jinja and it sounded like loads of fun! Unfortunately we didn’t have time to go there – I wish we had. We do get hope you get to return, we are sure you would love the national parks there.

    • Thank you! What was really lovely about this safari was that we could see the rhinos on foot. It was a real treat to see the mama and baby and to get so close to them.

  11. I have to start by saying that I was full of envy for this destination! I really want to visit Uganda and this article is definitely an inspiration for my next adventure.
    What a wonderful experience, to be able to visit and see rhinos in their natural habitat. I imagine it’s a thrill to see these majestic animals.
    The photos are a real treat for the eyes, I love them!

    • Thank you! Hope you get to visit Uganda – it really is an amazing place, not only for the ‘Big Five’ wildlife but also the wonderful primates.

  12. This is quite a nice side trip into the wilderness and the close encounters with white rhinos surely is something to remember fondly. I wonder why the makers of The Lion King never gave rhinos much credit for. A rhino character would have been a great addition to the list of characters. Also, I hope the puffy adders bite the poachers in the bum! #flyingbaguette

    Jan – https://flyingbaguette.com/

    • You’re right about rhinos being characters, they would have made a fantastic addition to the cast. This was a lovely trip, a break from the drive and we were so happy to walk with rhinos. And we agree about the punishment for poachers!!

  13. Thanks for sharing the info of their “white” name meaning, it makes much more sense now with the reference to their mouth rather than their actual skin colouring. I wondered if you guys ventured out on a day trip to visit the sanctuary or even stayed over, given that it is quite a distance away from Kampala. Great to hear the preservations efforts by the sanctuary are slowly starting to pay off. I have heard of similar sanctuaries for pangolins where rangers had to follow the individual animals all day long to ensure their safety. But I guess this is the only way to ensure they are fully protected.

    Carolin | Solo Travel Story

    • Yes, we were always confused about the difference between black and white rhinos in the past. This trip was on the way to the Murchison Falls national park and was a great chance to stretch our legs *and* see the rhino – the perfect stop off. It’s so important that the rangers monitor they animals and they do a fantastic job.

  14. I loved my safari experience this year in Tanzania and Kenya, but you went next level with a stroll to see rhinos. How amazing is that to not only have the opportunity to see them up close but to walk around which was pretty much a big no-no on my trip. I did have to have protection at our Serengeti camp in the middle of lion country, and it did feel extra special to be that close.

  15. This is one thing that I wish we had time for during our time in Uganda. I love visiting sanctuaries and supporting their important work in any way that I can. I love that they’re seeing some great results – hopefully, that continues with the awareness that you’re bringing!

    • It is so good that the sanctuary is so successful because you’re right, the work they are doing is important. We hope you enjoy your Uganda trip, it’s such an amazing country.

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