Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

Volcanoes National Park lies along the Virunga Mountains, with 8 ancient volcanoes, which are shared by Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Volcanoes National Park was first gazetted in 1925, as a small area bounded by Karisimbi, Bisoke and Mikeno volcanoes, intended to protect the gorillas from poaching.

It was the very first national to be created in Africa. Subsequently, in 1929, the borders of the park were extended further into Rwanda and into the Belgian Congo, to form the Albert National Park, a huge area of 8090 km2, run by the Belgian colonial authorities who were in charge of both colonies.

After the Congo gained independence in 1765, the park was split into two, and upon Rwandan independence in 1962 the new government agreed to maintain the park as a conservation and tourist area,

The park later became the base for the American naturalist Dian Fossey to carry out her research into the gorillas. She arrived in 1967 and set up the Karisoke Research Centre between Karisimbi and Visoke. From then on she spent most of her time in the park, and is widely credited with saving the gorillas from extinction by bringing their plight to the attention of the international community.

She was murdered by unknown assailants at her home in 1985, a crime often attributed to the poachers she had spent her life fighting against. Fossey’s life later was portrayed on the big screen in the film Gorillas in the Mist, named after her autobiography.

She is buried in the park in a grave close to the research centre, and amongst the gorillas which became her life. The Volcanoes National Park became a battlefield during the Rwandan Civil War, with the park headquarters being attacked in 1992. The research centre was abandoned, and all tourist activities (including visiting the gorillas) were stopped.

History of the park

Belgian colonists, who intended to protect the mountain gorillas on Karisimbi, Bisoke and Mikeno in Rwanda and Mikeno in Rwanda and the Belgian Congo from poachers, first gazetted the Virunga as a national park in 1925. This small conservation triangle was the first protected area to be created on the continent of Africa. Four years later, the borders were extended further to form Albert National Park, a massive area that encompasses more than 8000 sq.km.

Following the independence of the Congo in 1960 and Rwanda in 1962, Albert National Park was split into two entities, the Rwandan portion being assigned the name Volcanoes National Park. During the early years of Rwanda’s fragile independence, it wasn’t poaching or fighting that harmed the gorillas most, but rather a small daisy-like flower known as pyrethrum.

By the early 1970s, poachers were making inroads on both sides of the Rwanda – Democratic Republic of Congo border as the demand for stuffed gorillas heads and hands which were, depressingly, used as ashtrays began to burgeon. Thankfully, the plight of the mountain gorilla became an international issue following the work of the late Dian Fossey.

Gorilla trekking in Rwanda was first launched in 1979 by Amy Vedder and Bill Webber, who marketed the charismatic creatures to tourists on overland trips. By the late 1980s, the sale of gorilla permits was the country’s third largest revenue earner, which was enough to convince ordinary Rwandans that these great apes were indeed a valuable natural resource worth protecting.

In 1991, Rwanda was plunged into civil war, and Volcanoes National Park became a battlefield. By the time the perpetrators of the genocide swept across Rwanda in 1994, the park had long been heavily land-mined and then abandoned as refugees fled into the neighbouring DRC. When the dust from the conflict settled, many observers were surprised to discover that the gorillas had weathered the violence remarkably well. However, it wasn’t until 1999 that Volcanoes National Park was reopened to tourism. Since then tourism has boomed and gorilla tracking has once again become one of Rwanda’s biggest earners.

Biodiversity of Volcanoes National Park

The park is best known for the mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei). Other mammals include: golden monkey black-fronted duiker, buffalo spotted hyena and bush buck. The bush buck population is estimated to be between 1760–7040 animals. There are also reported to be some elephants in the park, though these are now very rare. There are 178 recorded bird species, with at least 13 species and 16 subspecies endemic to the Virunga and Ruwenzori Mountains.

Accessibility of the park

Visiting the fascinating Volcanoes Park is Musanze previously well-known as Ruhengeri, which can simply be accessed by public transport starting from Gisenyi or Kigali on the very day of your tracking. You will be required to arrive at the headquarters of ORTPN in Kinigi, at the park entrance, by 7:00 am, although this is not a very dependable option for those who hope to arrive by public transport.  However, there isn’t any public transport from Musanze to Kinigi.

When to go

It really does not matter when you want to tour the gorillas of Rwanda, you can see the gorillas all year round. Most visitors take on the months of June to September and then December to February since this is the time of the year where it does not rain heavily. During the peak season, July to September, the permits are always on high demand. Booking the trip 3 months to your trekking date is very important.