Statistics released by the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) once again reveal an increase in visitor numbers to the parks, proving the attraction even for locals now making up a larger portion of the overall part entries. Transit traffic has largely moved from Murchisons Falls National Park to the main road, newly built and therefore faster, while in the past security concerns also contributed towards much of the traffic using the park road and ferry at Paraa park headquarters. Leading the park statistics is Queen Elizabeth National Park, followed by Murchisons Falls in second place and Lake Mburo in third position.

Bwindi, the gorilla park, maintained over 10,000 visitors in 2008 and is on course to do even better this year, now that the high profile campaign is underway and the UN Year of the Gorilla 2009 has brought the international spotlight to the challenges of gorilla conservation. In fact, in August 2009, some 1,440 visitors were entering Bwindi, a new record for a single month, and arguably supported by the launch of the new Nshongi gorilla group which now allows 8 more tourist a day into the forest for gorilla tracking.

Of the 134.486 visitors to the parks in 2008 the highest segment were still the “foreign non resident” tourists, while Ugandans and East Africans recorded 24.214 entries, about the same as in 2007. Local expatriate visits, recorded as foreign residents with reduced entry fees, also grew to over 13,100.

However, educational programs bringing students and pupils into the parks showed the best growth rates and results, as those entries went from 2007 with 28,471 to now 37,774 in 2008. This is undoubtedly a result of having wildlife clubs re-invigorated as a co-curricular activity in schools and also demonstrates a growing awareness amongst students towards conservation and ecological issues.

Transit passengers through Murchisons continued to reduce to less than 5,000 in 2008 (from tens of thousands at the height of the LRA rebel and terror campaign) and are thought to fall further still in 2009, as the new tarmac road and good security along the route now make it unnecessary to travel through the park in order to safely reach Pakwach and the Nile bridge to ‘West Nile’, unless one wants to add some game viewing en route.

This is also possible, however, from the main road as recently witnessed by this correspondent during a trip to the area. This is positive news as the heavy goods vehicles are now leaving the park alone and the condition of the park roads, tracks and the ferry are all benefiting from this development. Besides, tourists can enjoy the park as they should, without heavy traffic disturbing them or the game.

With the onset of the East African Community common market in July 2010, and the expected launch of a common tourist Visa for all of Eastern Africa (long promised but still somewhat doubtful), UWA can expect to breach the 150.000 visitor entry mark to their parks by 2011 at the latest, and new lodge and safari camp developments, like the Chobi Safari Lodge, will support this trend by offering more accommodation in- and outside the protected areas.

Still, it must be said that these numbers are a far cry from the entry statistics into the Kenyan and Tanzanian national parks. This gives visitors to the Ugandan parks the added bonus of greater privacy and a more intense feeling to have had their game drive “alone,” since sightings of hoards of busses circling a pride of lions, as seen elsewhere in East Africa, is not the norm here. Uganda may be more pricey than some of the ‘economy tours’ offered elsewhere, but with the great variety of over 1.040 bird species, the gorillas, chimpanzees and 12 other species of primates, the lakes, rivers, waterfalls and Rwenzori mountain range it is definitely a destination worth visiting and remains “the Pearl of Africa.”