Virunga National Park

According to the Park website, "Tourism in Virunga is currently open after the insecurity in the region." The Rebels have been not active in the region since late 2012 and there is no threat to the park from them. (Updated May 2014)

Virunga National Park is in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979, but was labelled a site in danger in 1994 due to political conflict and poaching.

Understand

Virunga National Park is a 7800 square kilometer World Heritage Site that lies on the eastern border of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it borders Uganda as well as Rwanda. It is the oldest national park in Africa and the second oldest in the world (after Yellowstone). It is named after the Virunga Mountain (volcanoes) range that lie in the south of the park. the park however is much larger and stretches all the way north to envelop Lake Edward as well as the Rwenzori Mountains.

History

One of the approximately 200 remaining mountain gorillas in Virunga National Park

The history of the park is deeply affected by the country of which it is part. For much of its long history, Virunga National Park has struggled to survive through many of Congo's troubled times. 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 I 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 forests of the Virunga Mountains controlled by the Belgian Congo, but later expanded north to include the Rwindi Plains, Lake Edward and the Rwenzori Mountains in the far north.

In the first 35 years, the boundary of the park took shape, poaching was kept to a minimum and sustainable tourism thrived due to the work of a large body of hand-picked Congolese rangers and dedicated wardens. Land remuneration and the use of park resources such as fishing and hunting by the local population became an on-going problem and attempts were made to solve these issues.

When the Belgians granted Congo independence in 1960 the new state deteriorated rapidly, and so did the park. It was only in 1969 when President Mobutu began to take a personal interest in conservation, that the park was revived. In the process it was renamed Virunga National Park, and the first Congolese Wildlife Authority was established (now called ICCN). Virunga fared well for the better part of the 1970s. 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. In 1979 UNESCO designated the park as a World Heritage Site. In the mid 1980s the Mobutu regime began to lose its hold on power and the country began a long slide into chaos. The park suffered terribly. Poaching depleted Virunga's large mammal populations, infrastructure was destroyed, and many rangers were killed. The Congolese Wildlife Authority slowly lost control of Virunga and UNESCO changed the World Heritage Site status to "endangered."

Over the twenty-five years that followed, the park staff endured an almost uninterrupted series of trials that included a refugee crisis from the Rwandan Genocide that contributed to the severe destruction of park forests, and armed militia penetration throughout the park. The Kivu War, the most recent of Congo's conflicts, centered exactly on the park, with rebel forces occupying the park headquarters and evicting the park's staff. By the end of 2008 it seemed as if Virunga was finished.

The political situation in the DRC has changed exponentially since then. The park is back in the hands of the ICCN and enjoying the greatest resurgence of tourism and development in its history. International donors are investing in the development of the park's infrastructure at unprecedented levels. Virunga's management is efficient and transparent, and morale among the rangers is at an all time high.

Tourism has increased from zero in 2008, to approximately 2000 in 2010 with numbers growing steadily. New tourist activities are being developed in the park, including the habituation of chimpanzees in the Tongo forest and a high-end lodge conveniently located near the center of the three main tourist attractions in the southern sector, north of Goma.

Africa's first national park survived decades of chaos against all the odds, not because of circumstance but because of the dedication of the rangers and staff who believe in the value of saving Virunga National Park and its wildlife.

the nightly glow from the lava lake within the Nyiragongo volcano can be seen from miles away

Landscape

The nightly glow from the lava lake within the Nyiragongo volcano can be seen from miles away Virunga National Park is unrivalled in its diversity of landscapes and ecosystems. The parks bounderies envelop low land tropical forest in the north; high alpine forest in the Rwenzori Mountains; riverine forest around the Semliki and Rutshuru rivers; swamplands around lake Edward, savannah north and south of the lake; montane forest on the hills of the Virunga volcanoes and old (and new) lava flow landscapes.

Flora and fauna

The park boasts an astounding biodiversity due to the large variety of habitats it offers. In the southern sector the Mountain Gorillas attract most attention but the montane forests are also home to other primates such as Chimpanzees, Golden monkeys, Blue monkeys and black and white colobus. Forest Elephants and Buffalo are also found in this area as is the very shy Golden Cat.

The central area of the park consists mostly of savannah with species such as Lion, Leopard, Kob, Hyena, Topi, warthog etc. The lake, once containing the largest population of Hippo's (over 20.000), is now slowly regenerating after many troubled years and Hippo's and Crocodiles are once again a common sight.

In the North of the park in the deep Congolese forest the most elusive of African creatures is found: the Okapi.

Get in

The southern sector (Gorillas and Volcano) of Virunga National Park is easily accessible in a number of different ways the most common are:

Fees/Permits

Virunga National Park Park Permits:

Pay attention to the fact that transportation to/from the park is quite expensive and not included in the permits.

Do

Sleep

Lodging

Camping

Bukima Patrol Post The camp (see above) also offers secure self camping options for travellers on a budget, you can pitch your own tent on the camp's grounds and use its facilities for only 15$ pppn.

Other campsites at Jomba (another gorilla site) and Tongo are expected at the time of writing but not yet active/safe

Stay safe

Virunga National Park is located in a region that is often troubled by unrest. In the last three years, the southern sector of Virunga National Park (gorillas and volcano) has been considered safe for visitors, with over a 100 tourists visiting these sites every month. The Rwenzori mountains are also open for tourists and can be reached from Beni in the north of the park. The management of Virunga National Park emphasizes that all visitors need to be aware of current security issues at the time of their visit. You can check this site for the latest independent news feeds on this region, as well as detailed information on the park's activities outside tourism.

Virunga National Park strongly advises visitors against the use of their own transport. Escorted transport can be arranged through the National Park or via tour operators. More information about this can be found on Virunga National Park's tourism website, and Escorts for people using their own vehicles can be arranged by Virunga National Park Rangers (contact tourism@gorilla.cd). All visitors using the park's transportation are automatically escorted by their rangers.

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This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Sunday, October 11, 2015. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.