Gorillas and chimps have become Uganda’s star tourist attractions in recent years. So much so, in fact, that many people don’t really think of Uganda as true safari destination like Kenya, Tanzania or Botswana. This wasn’t always the case. In the 1960s, before the rise of Idi Amin and all the trouble that followed, Uganda was considered the ‘Pearl of Africa’ and was one of the continent’s premiere safari hotspots. Civil war and a poaching epidemic in the 70s and 80s tarnished the country’s once stellar reputation as a top safari destination and decimated its once abundant wildlife populations.

The good news is that Uganda has stabilized politically and the wildlife is coming back. Case in point: while elephant populations are plummeting across Africa due to poaching, Uganda has managed to increase its elephant population by about 600% since the 1980s. While it’s definitely worth a trip to Uganda to see its famed mountain gorillas and chimps, there are plenty of other great reasons to add it to your safari bucket list. Here are just a few:

1. Tree Climbing Lions

tree climbing lions uganda

By Cody Pope (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The black-maned, tree-climbing lions found in the Ishasha region of Queen Elizabeth National Park are pretty much worth the trip by themselves. There is only one other population of lions that is known to consistently and regularly climbs tree in the entire world.

2. The Rare (and Bizarre) Shoebill and Other Feathered Wonders

 With over 1,000 species of birds (11% of all species in Africa) Uganda is one of the world’s undisputed birding hotspots. And the species that tops just about every serious birder’s list is the strange, prehistoric looking shoebill. It’s named for its distinctive bill, which looks sort of like a wooden clog. It is estimated that there are only 5,000 to 8,000 shoebills in the world, and most of them live in seldom-visited southern Sudan. They are extremely shy and solitary and live deep within freshwater swamps in central and eastern Africa. Uganda is one of the best places to see them.

3. Mind Boggling Biodiversity

Jackson's Chameleon Uganda

By Movingsaletoday edited by Muhammad (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

As I mentioned above, Uganda is home to a staggering number of bird species. It also boasts 360 species of mammals, 165 species of reptiles, and 52 species of amphibians, making it one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. This isn’t surprising when you consider the remarkable patchwork of habitats and ecosystems found here, including tropical rainforests, East African savannah, lakes, wetlands, mountains, and swamps.

4. Murchison Falls (and the Mighty Nile)

Murchison Falls from above

By Oliver Sedlacek (Photograph taken by Oliver Sedlacek) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Imagine the mighty Victoria Nile being forced through a 20-foot wide gap in the rocks and tumbling almost 150 feet below and you start to get a sense for the drama of Murchison Falls. You can get close to the base of the falls on a boat tour of Lake Albert. Keep an eye out for hippos, crocodiles, elephants and the 450 bird species that call Murchison Falls National Park home. The park also contains lion, leopard, buffalo, sitatunga, giraffe, oribi, Ugandan kob, and much more.

5. The People

uganda's smiling people

Distracted Meal by Brian Wolfe is licensed by CC BY-NC 2.0

Even by Africa’s lofty standards of friendliness, Ugandans, as a whole, are exceptionally welcoming and warm. Given that Uganda’s citizens have faced more than their share of hardships in recent decades, you may be surprised by the sheer number of big, genuine smiles you see in the course of a single day.

6. The Big Five (Soon, Hopefully)

Ziwa  rhino sanctuary uganda

By Dror Feitelson (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

You can currently find four members (leopard, lion, buffalo, and elephant) of Africa’s famous Big Five in two of Uganda’s national parks: Murchison Falls and Queen Elizabeth. Rhinos became extinct in the wild here in the early 1980s due to poaching and the civil war. But that could change soon. The privately owned, non-profit Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary currently holds 15 white rhinos, and plans are underway to reintroduce them to the wild in the coming years. When that happens, Uganda will join a handful of African nations where all Big Five species can be seen in the wild and could even once again become a much needed stronghold for the embattled rhino.