Uganda - Background information

Wildlife guide
People and culture


Queen Elizabeth National Park Ariadne Van ZandbergenHike to any high point in Queen Elizabeth National Park for stunning vistas over its sweeping plains © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library

Abridged from the History section in Uganda: the Bradt Travel Guide

The Amin years (1971–79)

By 1966, Amin was second in command of the Ugandan army, and, following the 1966 Constitution Crisis, Obote promoted him to the top spot. It was Amin who led the raid that forced Mutesa into exile, Amin who gave the orders when 2,000 of the kabaka’s Baganda supporters were loaded into trucks and killed, and Amin who co-ordinated the mass detentions that followed the banning of the DP in 1969. For years, Amin was the instrument with which Obote kept a grip on power, yet, for reasons that are unclear, by 1970 the two most powerful men in Uganda were barely talking to each other. It is a measure of Obote’s arrogance that when he wrote that fateful memorandum before flying to Singapore, he failed to grasp not only that its recipient would be better equipped than anybody else to see the real message, but also that Amin was one of the few men in Uganda with the power to react.

Given the role that Amin had played under Obote, it is a little surprising that the reaction to his military takeover was incautious jubilation. Amin’s praises were sung by everybody from the man in the street to the foreign press and the Baganda royals whose leader Amin had helped drive into exile. This, quite simply, was a reflection less of Amin’s popularity than of Obote’s singular unpopularity. Nevertheless, Amin certainly played out the role of a ‘man of peace’, promising a rapid return to civilian rule, and he sealed his popularity in Buganda by allowing the preserved body of Mutesa to be returned for burial.

On the face of it, the first 18 months of Amin’s rule were innocuous enough. Arguably the first public omen of things to come occurred in mid 1972, when Amin expelled all Asians from the country, ‘Africanised’ their businesses, and commandeered their money and possessions for ‘state’ use. In the long term, this action proved to be an economic disaster, but the sad truth is that it won Amin further support from the majority of Ugandans, who had long resented Asian dominance in business circles. Even as Amin consolidated his public popularity, behind the scenes he was reverting to type; this was, after all, a man who had escaped being tried for murder not once but twice. Amin quietly purged the army of its Acholi and Lango majority: by the end of 1973, 13 of the 23 officers who had held a rank of lieutenant colonel or higher at the time of Amin’s coup had been murdered. By the end of 1972, eight of the 20 members of Obote’s 1971 cabinet were dead, and four more were in exile. Public attention was drawn to Amin’s actions in 1973, when the former prime minister, Benedicto Kiwanuka, was detained and murdered by Amin, as was the Vice Chancellor of Makerere University.

By 1974, Amin was fully engaged in a reign of terror. During the eight years he was in power, an estimated 300,000 Ugandans were killed by him or his agents (under the guise of the State Research Bureau), many of them tortured to death in horrific ways. His main targets were the northern tribes, intellectuals and rival politicians, but any person or group that he perceived as a threat was dealt with mercilessly. Despite this, African leaders united behind Uganda’s despotic ruler: incredibly, Amin was made President of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1975. Practically the sole voice of dissent within Africa came from Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, who asserted that it was hypocritical for African leaders to criticise the white racist regimes of southern Africa while ignoring similarly cruel regimes in ‘black’ Africa. Nyerere granted exile to several of Amin’s opponents, notably Milton Obote and Yoweri Museveni, and he refused to attend the 1975 OAU summit in Kampala.

As Amin’s unpopularity with his own countrymen grew, he attempted to forge national unity by declaring war on Tanzania in 1978. Amin had finally overreached himself; after his troops entered northwest Tanzania, where they bombed the towns of Bukoba and Musoma, Tanzania and a number of Ugandan exiles retaliated by invading Uganda. In April 1979, Amin was driven out of Kampala into an exile from which he would never return prior to his death of multiple organ failure in a Saudi Arabian hospital in August 2003.

Wildlife Guide

Abridged from the Wildlife Guide section in Uganda: the Bradt Travel Guide


Ugandan kob Ariadne Van ZandbergenUganda's national antelope is a race of the West African kob confined to grassy floodplains and open vegetation near water © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library

The official Ugandan mammal checklist of 342 species comprises 132 larger mammals, 94 bats, 70 rats and mice, 33 shrews and otter shrews, eight gerbils, four elephant shrews and a solitary golden mole. Several useful field guides to African mammals are available for the purpose of identification, but since they tend to lack specific distribution details for individual countries, the following notes emphasise local distribution and habitat, and are intended to serve as a Uganda-specific supplement to such a proper field guide. 


Primates are exceptionally well represented, with 15 diurnal and seven nocturnal species listed, though the taxonomic status of many is controversial, and some go by several different common names. 


The great apes of the family Pongidae are so closely related to humans that a less partial observer might well place them in the same family as us (it is thought that the chimpanzee is more closely related to humans than it is to any other ape). There are four ape species, of which two are found in Uganda.

Chimpanzee Ariadne Van ZandbergenChimpanzees are more closely related to humans than any other living primate, and their distinctive 'pant-hoot' call means you're likely to hear them before you see them © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library


A total of 38 carnivores have been recorded in Uganda: five canid species; seven felines; three hyenas; ten mongooses; six mustelids (otters, badgers and weasels); and seven viverrids (civets and genets).


Some 29 antelope species – about one-third of the African total – are included on the checklist for Uganda, a figure that fails to acknowledge a recent rash of near or complete local extinctions. There are probably no more than ten roan antelope remaining in Uganda, for example, while no oryx are left at all. Of the species that do still occur, five fall into the category of large antelope, having a shoulder height of above 120cm (roughly the height of a zebra); eight are in the category of medium-sized antelope, having a shoulder height of between 75cm and 90cm; and the remainder are small antelope, with a shoulder height of between 30cm and 60cm.

Hyraxes and other oddities

Uganda’s five hyrax species are guinea pig-like animals, often associated with rocky habitats, and related more closely to elephants than to any other living creatures – difficult to credit until you’ve heard a tree hyrax shrieking with pachydermal abandon through the night. Four types of pangolin (similar in appearance to the South American scaly anteaters) occur in Uganda, as does the aardvark, a bizarre, long-snouted insectivore which is widespread in savannah habitats but very seldom seen because of its nocturnal habits. Also regarded as large mammals by the official checklist are 12 squirrel species, three flying squirrels (anomalures), three porcupines, three hares, two cane-rats, a hedgehog and the peculiar chevrotain. 


Two crowned cranes Ariadne Van ZandbergenThe crowned crane appears alongside the Ugandan kob on the national coat of arms © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library

Uganda is arguably the most attractive country in Africa to birdwatchers, not only because of the unusually high number of species recorded within its borders, but also because it offers easy access to several bird-rich habitats that are difficult to reach elsewhere. Uganda’s remarkable avian diversity – 1,075 species recorded in an area similar to that of Great Britain – can be attributed to its location at a transitional point between the East African savannah, the West African rainforest and the semi-desert of the north.


Widespread throughout Africa, the Nile crocodile was once common in most large rivers and lakes, but it has been exterminated in many areas in the past century – hunted professionally for its skin as well as by vengeful local villagers. Contrary to popular legend, Nile crocodiles generally feed mostly on fish, at least where densities are sufficient. They will also prey on drinking or swimming mammals where the opportunity presents itself, dragging their victim underwater until it drowns, then storing it under a submerged log or tree until it has decomposed sufficiently for them to eat. 

A wide variety of snakes is found in Uganda, though – fortunately, most would agree – they are typically very shy and unlikely to be seen unless actively sought. One of the snakes most likely to be seen on safari is Africa’s largest, the rock python, which has a gold-on-black mottled skin and regularly grows to lengths exceeding 5m. Non-venomous, pythons kill their prey by strangulation, wrapping their muscular bodies around it until it cannot breathe, then swallowing it whole and dozing off for a couple of months while it is digested. Pythons feed mainly on small antelopes, large rodents and similar. 


All African lizards are harmless to humans, with the arguable exception of the Nile monitor, which could in theory inflict a nasty bite if cornered. Two species of monitor occur in East Africa, the water and the savannah, the latter growing up to 2.2m long and occasionally seen in the vicinity of termite mounds, the former slightly smaller but far more regularly observed by tourists, particularly along the Kazinga Channel in Queen Elizabeth National Park (QENP). Visitors to East Africa will soon become familiar with the common house gecko, an endearing bug-eyed, translucent white lizard, which as its name suggests reliably inhabits most houses as well as lodge rooms, scampering up walls and upside down on the ceiling in pursuit of pesky insects attracted to the lights.  

People and culture

Karamojong Ariadne Van ZandbergenVisits to Karamojong communities often include traditional dance performances © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library

The 2014 census showed Uganda to have a population of 35 million, which represented an increase of almost 50% on the 2002 figure of 28 million, a fivefold increase since independence (when the population stood at about 7 million) and an annual growth rate of around 4%. The population probably stands at around 45 million today. The majority of Uganda’s people are concentrated in the south and west. The most populous ethnic group is the Bantu-speaking Baganda, which accounts for about 18% of the population and is centred on Kampala. Other numerically significant Bantu-speaking groups are the Busoga (10%), Banyankole (8%) and Bakiga (8%). The east and north of the country are populated by several Nilotic- or Cushitic-speaking groups, including the Teso, Karamojong, Acholi and Lango.


The official language, English, is spoken as a second language by most educated Ugandans. More than 33 local languages are spoken in different parts of the country. Most of these belong to the Bantu language group: for instance, Luganda, Lusoga and Lutoro. Several Nilotic and Cushitic languages are spoken in the north and east, some of them by only a few thousand people. Many Ugandans speak a limited amount of Swahili, a coastal language which spread into the East African interior via the 19th-century Arab slave traders. 


Religion plays a far larger role in day-to-day life in Uganda than it does in most Western countries, with fewer than 1% of the population claiming to be atheist or agnostic. Freedom of religion is a constitutional right, though the activities of certain groups classified as cults is restricted. Christianity dominates. The Roman Catholic Church can claim around 42% of the total population, while the Church of Uganda (an offshoot of the Church of England) accounts for another 36%, and 7% are Jehovah’s Witnesses or belong to a Pentecostal church. Partially as a legacy of the Arab trade with Buganda in the late 19th century, roughly 12% of Ugandans are Muslim (mostly Sunni), with the majority living in the eastern half of the country. Today, there is little or no friction between Christian and Muslim, though postindependence political conflict did follow Catholic-Protestant lines. In most rural areas, these non-indigenous faiths have not entirely displaced traditional beliefs, so that an estimated 25% of the Christian and Islam population might still partake in traditional religious practices such as making sacrifices to clan ancestors or other spirits. Other minority religions are Hindu, Bahá’í and a unique variant on Judaism practised by the Abayudaya of Mbale. The main centre of animism is the northeast, where the Karamoja – like the affiliated Maasai and other Rift Valley pastoralists – largely shun any outside faith in favour of their own traditional beliefs.

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