Virunga national park was established in 1925 by King Albert of Belgium who ruled Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as a colony. Situated in North Kivu province in the eastern part of Congo, Virunga is the oldest protected area in Africa.
Goma, the capital city of the province on the northern shores of Lake Kivu is 35 km (1-hour drive) away from Rumangabo, the park headquarters located in the southern sector of Kibumba. The protected area is a portion of the Virunga massif a chain of 8 volcanic mountains that straddle the borders between Uganda, Rwanda and DR Congo. They collectively make up the Greater Virunga Conservation Area (VCA) including Volcanoes (Rwanda) and Mgahinga (Uganda) national parks. The Virunga ecosystem is home to 604 of the 1,063 world mountain gorilla population.
Geography and wildlife of Virunga national park
Virunga national park is the largest of the 3 protected areas and covers 7,800 sq.km (3,000 sq.Miles). Stretching from the active volcanoes of Mt. Nyiragongo 3,754m (11,385ft) and Mt. Nyamuragira 3,058m (10,033ft) in the south to the snow-capped peaks of Rwenzori Mountain ranges on the border with Uganda.
The wilderness area encompasses diverse habitats including dense tropical forests and lava plains in the southern sector around the dormant Mount Mikeno 4,437m (14,557ft), steppes and savanna plains in the Lulimbi central sector which adjoins Ishasha wilderness in Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park. The wetlands along the shores of Lake Edward support a remarkable profusion of flora and flora. The afro-alpine vegetation and snow-capped peaks on the Rwenzori Mountain Range in the northeast of the park.
The north eastern part of Virunga lies in the lowland Semuliki river valley between the Rwenzori ranges and the great Ituri forest of the Congo basin. As such, Virunga national park is rich in the biodiversity including 706 species of birds, 218 mammal species including savanna and forest elephants, Okapi (forest giraffe), hippos, lions and Congo buffaloes; 20 primate species of which 3 are great apes including gorillas, chimpanzees, and lowland gorillas, 76 amphibians, and 109 reptile species.
World heritage site in danger
After being named a UNESCO world heritage site in 1979, Virunga was added to the list of natural places in danger in 1994. The world heritage convention Article 11 considers natural and cultural sites in danger when their survival is threatened by several factors including armed conflict, deforestation, mass tourism, rapid urbanization and other developmental projects such as mining and gas and oil extraction.
The biodiversity of Virunga national park has most been put at risk by the war in eastern DR Congo, where over 120 rebel groups operate. Since the Rwandan genocide and the mass refugee influx thereafter, the population of people living around the protected area increased. There are over 5 million in the communities adjacent to Virunga. Land is vital for agriculture to produce food, fishing, hunting for bushmeat, collection of wild plants, and honey. Unsustainable practices have the potential for habitat loss. Besides, Virunga is also threatened by the planned oil and gas exploration project. Despite criticism, there are 30 blocks of land inside the protected area on the shores of Lake Edward that are potential for oil drilling.
Safeguarding the biodiversity of Virunga national park is a critical situation for both the Congolese government. The concerned conservation partner organizations include the Virunga Alliance created in 2013 in collaboration with over 127 local institutions. Together, they’re promoting sustainable development practices to empower local communities and create solutions to the challenges facing Virunga national park. The overall aim is to have the park removed from the list of world heritage sites in danger by 2025, when Virunga celebrates 100 years.
Tourism sectors in Virunga national park
The Virunga national park is separated into 4 sectors including Kibumba, Lulimbi, Bukima and northern. Lodging facilities are available only in the major 3 which are Kibumba, Bukima and Lulimbi.
Kibumba is the most visited sector of Virunga national park with Rumangabo, the park’s visitor center. This is the starting point for treks to see gorillas and the active Nyiragongo volcano. The area also includes Mt. Mikeno, a dormant volcano where a chimpanzee walk can be done. Most of the 10 gorilla families available for trekking in Virunga national park reside on the slopes of Mikeno volcano. Mikeno lodge offers luxury accommodations and spectacular views of the surrounding forest and the backdrop of Lake Kivu.
The Lulimbi includes the central and eastern parts of Virunga National Park, which borders the Ishasha wilderness in Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park. The area is part of the western arm of the rift valley and is a flat area with savanna plains, steppes, and riverine forests. Several rivers that pass through the area including Rwindi River and Rutsguru River are home to wildlife like hippos, crocodiles, African elephants, and forest buffaloes. The Lulimbi sector offers opportunities for game drives and guests can stay at Lulimbi mid-range Lulimbi Tented Camp.
Bukima is part of the southern sector on the edge of the park. It’s not a sector on its own but was the original Virunga research basecamp that was later turned into a Bukima tented camp. Bukima is a local Congolese dialect meaning “a Place where there are monkeys.” Several primate species including gorillas frequent the lodge premises and feed there.
The lodge is a wonderful option for those who don’t want to get up early because it is closer to the gorilla trek start point. Next to the center is the Senkwe Gorilla Orphans Project open for visiting from 9 am-5pm. The sanctuary for orphaned mountain gorillas was established in 2010 to take care of 2 infant gorillas that had survived poaching and conflict.
The center is not like a captive zoo because mountain gorillas cannot live outside of their natural habitat. There were 5 gorillas, but only 2 remained at the facility after 3 of them passed away from illness. Visitors can interact with the gorillas and their keepers while learning about the threats facing gorillas in Africa. In addition, there’s also a new chimpanzee habituation center offering walks in the forest on the slopes of Mikeno.
The northern sector
The northern part of Virunga national park encampasses the western slopes of Rwenzori Mountain Range. With unique afroalpine flora and fauna, snow-capped peaks, and valleys, this region is probably the most spectacular.
Tourist attractions in Virunga national park
The number of tourists visiting Virunga since 2008 is over 17,000 people annually of which most come to see the gorillas. Undoubtedly, they’re the number one attraction with 10 gorilla families that have been habituated for gorilla treks. In addition, Virunga offers several things to see and do including active volcanoes, birds, chimpanzees, and unique cultural experiences. Nature lovers will enjoy it here.
Ibirunga (Virunga) is a Kinyarwanda term that translates to “volcanoes” in English. In the park’s southern sector there are 3 of the 8 Virunga mountains, including Mikeno, Nyiragongo and Nyamuragira. Mount Mikeno, 4,437m (14,557 feet), is an extinct volcano and the 2nd tallest after Karisimbi in the Virunga massif. Nyamuragira and Nyiragongo are active volcanoes that have erupted over 32 times since the end of the 18th century. In particular, Mount Nyiragongo’s recent eruption happened in February, 2021. Due to lava overflow over 1,000 homes were destroyed and 32 people died in the villages near Goma city capital city, 12 km south of the volcano.
The Goma lava fields
Nyiragongo hike is still closed due to the new lava vents that developed at the summit cabins. Prior to the eruption, it was possible to sleep there with the opportunity to look down into the lava lake at night. However, you can tour the Goma lava fields. You can also donate what you can to help the locals rebuild their homes and clean water systems. The lava fields can take a year to cool down, making it challenging to remove them.
The Nyiragongo lava lake is the largest of the 6 active lava lakes in the world. After the 2002 eruption, the lava lake was recorded at 700 meters across given the volcanic activity was high leading to its expansion. Before the 2021 eruption the lava lake had receded to nearly 200 meters diameter. However, the permanent lava lake was still boiling at 2,000°C with bursting fire flames reaching 10 meters tall. The volcanic activity is dynamic and makes a sound like that you would hear while approaching Murchison falls in Uganda. The crater wall is 600 meters, where visitors can stand and gaze down into the lake. The smoke that comes out at night creates a red cloud that can be seen as far away as in Lake Kivu.
There are 10 gorilla families available for trekking in Virunga national park including Baraka (19) members, Bageni (48), Rugendo (11), Munyaga (12), Lulengo (11), Kabirizi (24), Mapuwa (26), Nyakamwe (15), Humba (15) and Wilungula (42).
The composition of gorilla groups fluctuates frequently given that new members are born and others leave. (For updated information on gorillas, ask the Virunga park authorities or a tour operator). The total number of habituated gorillas is over 223 individuals of the estimated 300 in the protected area. According to the International Gorilla Conservation Program (ICGP), the number has risen from 70 in the last 18 years. Most of the habituated gorillas reside in the southern sector and around the slopes of Mikeno volcano.
Each family is closely monitored daily by the Virunga rangers of the Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN). There are over 770 rangers including women of which over 200 have died since 2007. Protecting the park requires them to patrol the forest to remove snares and counteract poachers which is challenging due to the nature of terrain. The survival of gorillas and the foundation of Virunga national park tourism, depends heavily on rangers.
They must therefore be properly outfitted to carry out their duties. A UK-based nonprofit organization called Gearing up for Gorillas (G4G) provides the required tools and resources, and reports that the rangers trekked over 25,800 km in 2022 whilst monitoring the park. One of the good things of seeing gorillas in the wild is that you get to know the character of each individual. Rangers have first-hand knowledge, and they have developed a unique connection with gorillas.
Mountain gorilla orphanage sanctuary
Given that both have been victims of war and poachers. For instance, poachers attacked rangers and killed 7 gorillas that belonged to the Rugendo group in 2007. Other gorillas were frightened and started living in isolation.
In regard to providing extra care and protection for gorillas that would be left fatherless, the Senkwekwe Gorilla Orphanage Center was formed in 2013. Located near the gorilla center at Bukima, the center offers the opportunity to explore the connection between Virunga rangers and the gorillas. You will also meet the guardian’s including the acclaimed Andre Bauma who was featured in the 2014 Virunga documentary (Winner of the Doxa Film Festival) available on Netflix and the official Virunga movie website.
In addition to gorillas, the park now offers opportunities to see chimpanzees. The chimpanzee walk in Virunga national park provides a chance to search for primates under habituated. While exploring the forest on the lower slopes of Mikeno volcano, visitors can enjoy bird watching too. Given that chimps are monitored by Virunga rangers daily, the chance to see chimps on the walk is high. The walk starts early in the morning or afternoon and lasts for 1 – 3 hours. Since chimps are monitored by Virunga rangers every day, there is a good possibility that you will see them while on this walk. The 1 – 3-hour chimpanzee walk begins early in the morning or late in the day. This walk is ideal for those staying at Mikeno Lodge.
Besides gorillas, there are 218 mammal species recorded in Virunga national park including lions, African elephants, and hippos. There are also rare species such as the Congo buffalo commonly known as the forest buffalo, red river hog, giant tree pangolin, Bongo and Okapi (the forest giraffe). The best place to see mammals in Virunga is in the central Lulimbi sector, where savanna plains and steppes attract antelope species like topi, Uganda kob, and warthog. These angulates also draw predators like lions, hyenas, and leopards.
Virunga’s central sector adjoins Ishasha wilderness in Queen Elizabeth national park, providing a vital wildlife corridor for migration of elephants. Conservanists recently observed this route being used by over 580 elephants which moved from Uganda across the Ishasha river to DR Congo.
The central section of the Virunga borders the Ishasha wilderness in western Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park, serving as an essential wildlife corridor for elephant migration. Over 580 elephants in 2020 crossed the Ishasha river to the DR Congo using this route, according to Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration (GVTC).
This organization brings together the wildlife authorities of Uganda, Rwanda and Uganda which share the Virunga landscape. They cooperate to increase habitat connectivity, thereby avoiding the habitat fragmentation in Virunga region, which is essential to the protection of biodiversity. The movement of elephants is an indication of peace and conservation in DR Congo. Those intending to see elephants in Virunga national park should stay at Lulimbi tented camp. The Lulimbi tented camp is the best place to stay if you want to see elephants in the Virunga National Park. The Virunga Fund is another way for well-wishers to contribute to the protection of elephants.