Exploring Virunga National Park of DR Congo

Virunga National Park is Africa’s oldest park established in 1925 as Albert National Park mainly to protect and conserve mountain gorillas when its borders were marked, under Belgian rule to promote sustainable tourism development. The park was later after independence in 1969 renamed Virunga national park to signify the chain of 8 volcanic mountains including the active Mt. Nyiragongo and Mt. Nyamuragira.

Virunga National Park is located in Eastern DRC on the border with Uganda and Rwanda covering an area of 7,800 sq km. it has the richest biological diversity in Africa with a variety of landscapes and ecosystems that create habitat for globally threatened wildlife species on the IUCN Red list including mountain gorillas, Eastern chimpanzees, Okapi and African elephants.

The park was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1979 and protected under the United Nations Ramsar wetland convention.  No wonder why Virunga is today’s popular destination for many Africa safari goers seeking remote and untouched jungle experience.

Despite being a global hot spot for biodiversity conservation, parts of Virunga has for long been under siege due to political tensions and rebel activities. The park’s conservation staff have been dying as well as poaching, habitat loss due to encroachment greatly disrupted tourism and conservation.

Attempts to solve poaching and encroachment as challenges to tourism development had been dealt with earlier by the Belgian government. When the ICCN took over management, Virunga National Park started to receive few visitors for gorilla trekking safaris.

However, challenges to conservation and tourism became more apparent, the political system of president Mubutu lost control and civil wars broke out intensifying poaching and encroachment. This raised concerns from conservationists and the Congolese wildlife authority picked received financial and technical support from major conservation organizations and European Union protect the park’s wildlife.

It’s of recent in 2012 when the park rangers regained full control of the park and it’s now a safe tourism destination especially gorilla trekking safaris as well as birding, nature walks, volcano climbing and game drive safaris.

The park has also attracted foreign and local Investments in infrastructure roads, electricity generation, ranger monitoring stations and tourist centers at Rumangabo, Mikeno including lodges and camps has made the park more popularly and accessible for gorilla trekking.

The diverse landscapes in Virunga National park include 2 active volcanic mountains, tropical and afromontane forests, glaciers and snowfields on the Rwenzori Mountains with savannahs plains in the rift valley floor, wetlands and eroded valleys have become the most admired place of exceptionally natural beauty in Africa. In fact it has been confirmed that most of the migratory bird species from Siberia and Europe such as Osprey hawk are attracted by the varied habitats.

The main tourist attractions in the park are the mountain gorillas. About 200 gorillas are estimated to inhabit the park’s dense forests some of which have been habituated for tourism. About 5 gorilla families have been habituated and most accessible with Congolese wildlife guides and rangers for tourists on their gorilla trekking safaris to the park.

In addition to mountain gorillas, Virunga national park is a habitat for 218 species of mammals. It is also a home to 3 great apes including the Chimpanzee, Gorillas and bonobo and 22 species of primate species have been spotted in the park. The park is also a home to over 700 birds, 109 reptiles’ species and amphibians and many endemic species of plants and trees.

Gorillas are the main tourist attractions and attract many gorilla trekking safaris in the park. Virunga national park has 5 gorilla families habituated for tourism. The park wildlife rangers and guides on a guided tour lead tourists to the gorillas in their natural habitat.

Gorilla trekking itself requires fitness and proper hiking gears; its important thing for tourists planning their gorilla trekking safaris to book a gorilla permit for Virunga with a trusted tour operator www.ugandagorillassafari.com. There are more activities to do in the park such as wildlife viewing, bird watching, chimpanzee tracking, Mt. Nyiragongo hiking and canoeing.

To enter into Democratic Republic of Congo on your gorilla trekking safari to Virunga National Park, you must have DRC visa, passport and yellow fever vaccination card.

DRC is accessible by both air travels with fly in charter planes from Rwanda to Goma airport for those who have limited time but still want to do gorilla trekking in DRC. There are also connecting flights from Entebbe to Goma airport in DRC.

Road trips from Rwanda go through the Gisenyi border post where tourists are verified and registered from and later continue to Goma city. Alternatively, tourists can access Virunga National Park via southwestern Uganda at Bunagana border post.

There are tourist facilities in and outside virunga national park for the high end, mid-range and budget travelers. Those that are found far away from the park have means to transport their clients to Rumangabo the main gorilla trekking trailhead or Bukima patrol post for Mt. Nyiragongo hiking.

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