Virunga National Park
Virunga National Park is a 7800 square kilometer World Heritage Site that lies on the eastern border of the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is the oldest, most beautiful and most diverse national park on the African continent that and boasts savannas, lava plains, swamps, erosion valleys, forests, active volcanoes and the ice fields of the Rwenzori Mountains.
The park provides a home to numerous species of wildlife, including 200 of the world's critically endangered mountain gorillas and a small population of eastern lowland gorillas.
For years the political situation in Congo prevented tourists from visiting Virunga. Now that the Democratic Republic of Congo is ruled by an elected government and is at peace with her neighbors, the park has been re-opened to tourists and the world is re-discovering one of its most treasured places.
With so much diversity in one park, Virunga offers the visitor opportunities that can be found in few other places. The three most popular attractions include visiting mountain gorillas in their natural habitat, climbing an active volcano, and climbing the spectacular snow-capped Rwenzori Mountains. As the park continues on the path of stability, more options will become available.
Tourist safety in Virunga National Park
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 is dedicated to ensure the safety and security of all its visitors. It does, however, emphasize the importance that all visitors be aware of current security issues at the time of their visit. Virunga National Park cannot take responsibility for any accidents or incidents. If any signs indicate a security issue, the Management of Virunga National Park can decide to (temporarily) close one of its destinations and all bookings to those destinations will be refunded.
Before organizing a trip to Virunga National Park please inform yourself on the security situation, please check www.gorilla.cd for the latest independent news feeds on this region, as well as detailed information on the parks activities outside tourism. We advise that you check with your governments foreign affairs agency on their travel advice to the region and to check whether your insurance covers travel in this region, if not we advise visitors to ensure that they acquire additional insurance to cover travel to Virunga National Park.
We strongly advise against the use of self arranged transport, please use our transport or the transport supplied by trusted tour operators. All visitors using our transportation are automatically escorted by our rangers. If you do decide to use your own transport please inform our tourism office (email@example.com) so that one of our rangers can escort you to your destination within the park (free of charge).
Main SightsClick map to enlarge
History of the 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.
About the ICCN
ICCN (Institute Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature) is the Congolese Wildlife Authority for all parks in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The organization was originally conceived to protect Virunga National Park but has subsequently expanded to include all of DR Congo's protected areas.
Its duties now include:
- Management and conservation of DRC's biodiversity in protected areas
- Promotion of scientific research
- Development of eco-tourism within the framework of conservation
- Development of populations living around protected areas
- Education and infrastructure for populations living around protected areas
Director Cosma Wilungula Balongelwa currently leads ICCN. Emmanuel de Merode is Chief Warden of Virunga National Park.
To find out more about ICCN please see: iccn.gorillacd.org