Virunga National Park
Virunga National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo on the border of Uganda and Rwanda. The park is Africa’s oldest national park and is also the continent’s most biologically diverse protected area. The park’s 7800 sq.km includes forest, Savannah, lava plains, swamps, erosion valleys, active volcanoes and the glaciated peaks of the Rwenzori Mountains. Virunga National Park is home to about a quarter of the world’s critically endangered mountain gorillas.
The park’s two other great ape species include the eastern lowland (Grauer’s gorillas and chimpanzees), make Virunga the only park in the world to host three taxa of great apes. Another prominent inhabitant of the park is the Okapi, an endangered species that resemble a zebra but is more closely related to the giraffe.
Virunga is located in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s North Kivu province, and covers nearly 8,000 square miles. As well as being home to one of the world’s largest populations of the critically endangered mountain gorillas, it has hundreds of other rare species.
The park is comprised of three sectors:
The northern sector’s defining feature is the Rwenzori Mountains that border Uganda. At over 5000 meters (16,400 ft.), the summits of the Rwenzori are permanently snow-capped. Snow melt from the Rwenzori is one of the primary sources of the Nile River. Okapis can be found living along the Semuliki River valley below.
Lake Edward, the Ishasha river valley, and the Rwindi plains are the dominant geographical features that define the park’s central sector. Lake Edward contains over 50 species of fish, as well as numerous bird species. The lake and the adjacent Ishasha river valley are home to the park’s recovering hippo population, once the world’s largest. The park’s highest concentrations of elephant, buffalo, warthogs, and Topi are found on the Rwindi plains of the central sector.
Virunga’s southern sector is best known for the mountain gorillas that live on the flanks on the dormant Mikeno volcano (4380m/14,557 ft.). Dense forests cover most of southern Virunga, which also make it ideal habitat for chimpanzees and numerous species of monkey.
History of Virunga National Park
The history of the park affected the country, poaching depleted Virunga’s large mammal populations, infrastructure was destroyed and many rangers were killed, but thanks to the dedication of certain politicians, conservationists, park rangers and wardens, the park not only has survived, but is currently experiencing a dramatic renewal. The park was founded in 1925 by King Albert 1 of Belgium and originally known as Albert National Park, the first national park on the continent of Africa. It was founded primarily to protect the gorillas living in the forest of the Virunga Mountains controlled by the Belgian Congo, but later expanded north to include the Rwindi Plains, Lake Edward and the Rwenzori Mountain in the far north.
When the Belgians granted Congo independence in 1960 the new state deteriorated rapidly, in the process it was renamed Virunga National Park and the first Congolese Wildlife Authority was established now called ICCN. Foreign investment helped to improve the park’s infrastructure and training facilities and the park became a popular destination for tourists, receiving on average 6500 visitors a year. New tourist activities are being developed in the park, including the habituation of chimpanzees in the Tongo forest and high-end lodge conveniently located near the centre of the three main tourist attractions in the southern sector, north of north of Goma.