With their characteristic black, white, and chestnut feather pattern flashing clearly in the morning sun, a pair of fish eagles watches over the tranquil bay. The birds suddenly start a piercing, expressive duet by tossing their heads back. A well-fed monster crocodile awakens from its siesta on the sandbank below, frightened. A pair of sentry-post eyes that peer menacingly above the water to watch our movements are the only thing that can be seen as it stampedes through the crunchy vegetation and crashes into the water in front of the boat.
The second-largest lake in the world, Lake Victoria, an inland sea spanning between Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya, has Rubondo Island tucked away in its southwest corner. Rubondo defends priceless fish spawning sites by hosting eleven tiny islands. The yellow-spotted otters that play in the island’s rocky coves feed primarily on tasty tilapia, but voracious Nile perch, some of which weigh more than 100 kg, tempt recreational game anglers looking for world-record harvests.
Rubondo is more than just an aquatic paradise. Uninhabited sandy beaches are nestled in the midst of a pristine forest, where dappled bushbuck dart silently between tamarind trees, wild palms, and sycamore figs that are encircled by a web of trailing taproots. The shaggy-coated aquatic sitatunga, which is typically found in papyrus swamps and is among the most secretive antelopes elsewhere, is surprisingly simple to spot both inside the forest and outside of it.
There are birds all everywhere. African grey parrot flocks cry in comic discord as they flap frantically amongst the trees after being seized from illegal exporters and released onto the island. A paradise flycatcher’s glossy, flowing tail clashes with the azure brilliance of a malachite kingfisher perched low on the reeds as it flits through the lakeside vegetation. Thousands of Eurasian migrants arrive throughout the northern winter, adding to the abundance of herons, storks, and spoonbills that already inhabit the swampy lake margins. The forest is filled with a feast of fragrant, undefinable odors, wild jasmine, 40 distinct orchid species, and more.
Humid woodland makes up 90% of the park; the other 20% is made up of everything from open grassland to papyrus beds along the lakes. A number of introduced species, including chimpanzees, black-and-white colobus, elephants, and giraffes, coexist in Rubondo’s protected habitat alongside native mammal species including the hippo, vervet monkey, genet, and mongoose. All of these introduced species gain from Rubondo’s isolation.