Question: Where in the world is a 23-foot-wide river enough to sustain 500 species at once?
Answer: Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda
Murchison Falls is deceptive. Its mouth is only 23 feet wide, which would make it seem fairly modest from above. But when you see it from below, you realize that narrow opening is dropping thousands of tons of water 141 feet to the riverbed below. It makes a spectacular sight for humans and a vital lifeblood for wildlife—the park which shares its name is home to more than 500 species of animals.
The park was formally established in 1952, just one year after Hollywood audiences first saw it on the silver screen in a little Humphrey Bogart film you might have heard of. (See below.) Ugandan officials initially promoted the park as a place to witness hippo and crocodiles. While both are still abundant, that barely scratches the surface of animal diversity in and around the falls.
There are 76 mammal species alone at Murchison. Among them are Rothschild giraffes, one of the most endangered species on the planet (with fewer than 200 left), and African bush elephants, the largest land mammals, standing 13 feet at the shoulder. They’re joined by hartebeest, bushbucks, and kobs, among many others. Bird life is even more dramatic, with more than 450 species, 59 of which are not found elsewhere. The standout might be the Goliath Heron, the biggest heron on earth.
While some of the animals are shy, the monkeys have less compunction about being noticed by the park’s visitors. 800 chimpanzees call the park home and the olive baboons are now so comfortable with humans that they linger by the roadside, waiting for cars to pass so they may check out what the humans have brought to eat. It’s their cheeky way of turning the tables—visitors come to see the falls and the monkeys come to see the visitors!
8 Fast Facts About Murchison
- The national park is Uganda’s largest, sprawling across 1,500 square miles, 115 of it bisected by the Nile.
- 11,000 cubic feet of water plummets over the falls every single second through the narrow gap at the top.
- Romanian slave-turned-noblewoman, Florence Baker, and her husband were the first Europeans to discover Murchison Falls and later returned to Uganda to help fight the African slave trade.
- They named the falls after the President of the Royal Geographic society, Roderick Murchison, a Scottish explorer after whom 15 geographical sites are named worldwide.
- Dictator Idi Amin didn’t like the name and changed it to Kabalega Falls in honor of a King who fought the British, but after Amin was deposed, the official name changed back.
- African Queen was filmed partly in Murchison National Park, which was more rustic than Katherine Hepburn expected (and she later complained that the jungle will overtake a person if they are not careful).
- One of the boats used to film the movie was later used to rescue Ernest Hemingway and his wife when they crashed their plane downriver from the falls (before boarding a second plane, which also crashed).
- This past summer, South Africa wanted to launch a hydropower plant on the river and Uganda stopped it, arguing that Murchison Falls and its wildlife were too important to disrupt.