Virunga National park
Virunga national park is located in the eastern part of Congo in Goma, covering an area of about 8090 square kilometres and is part of the Virunga massif which is shared by Mgahinga national park in Uganda and volcanoes national park in Rwanda. The national park is the oldest national park in Africa that was gazetted in 1925 purposely to protect and conserve the endangered mountain gorillas.
Virunga national park in Congo was previously referred to as Albert National Park, named after King Albert 1 of Belgium. The national park is one of the oldest protected areas on the African continent and it was created in order to protect the diverse and unique flora and fauna species that exist within the park’s boundaries.
Later in 1969, the Albert National Park was then renamed as Virunga National Park following the country’s gain to independence from the Belgian colonial government in 1960. Tourists can also identify the park by its French translation, ‘Parc National des Virunga.’
Congo’s Virunga national park is located in the eastern region of the country, and is situated within the Albertine Rift Valley. The national park is elevated at an altitude of 680 meters in the Semiliki River valley, and 5,109 meters in the Rwenzori Mountains. The park also extends into Uganda and Rwanda, covering an area of 8,090 km².
In 1926, a Belgian zoologist called Jean-Marie Eugène Derscheid headed the first Belgian mission to map the national part, encompassing the areas of Mount Karisimbi and Mount Mikeno. He not only set boundaries of Virunga, but also went an extra mile and carried out comprehensive studies on some wildlife species in the national park like; the mountain gorillas, dugong, tropical birds, long fin herring and the okapi among others. He also wrote scientific articles about his research work and interaction with some ethnic tribes in the Virunga area.
Later in the 1950s, a group of Tutsi herders encroached on the park boundaries, entering Virunga National Park with their cattle along, which resulted into the destruction of the natural habitat to an altitude of about 3,000 meters which put a threat on the livelihood of the park’s plant and wildlife species especially its mountain gorillas.
Virunga national park in Congo, is situated in a province which has been deeply affected by civil wars and armed conflict for nearly 20 solid years. The national park is protected by a dedicated team of over 600 game rangers, both women and men. This team of skilled and dedicated individuals are taken through intensive training programs; and risk their lives on a daily basis, so as to protect the national park’s exceptional wildlife, including the critically endangered primate species of mountain gorillas.
The national park has two volcanic mountains within the park’s enclosures and these are; Mount Nyiragongo, which is an active stratovolcano and Mount Nyamuragira, which is an active shield volcano.
Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo is home to 218 mammal species inclusive of; savanna elephants, hippos, okapis, lions and mountain gorillas to mention but a few. The national park is also a habitat to 706 species of birds, 109 reptile species and 78 amphibian species and 22 primate species; all which has increased over the recent years due to ongoing conservation campaigns by various environmentalists and organizations.
The national park is home to more than 3,000 flora and fauna species, with more than 300 only found in the Albertine Rift Valley inclusive of the eastern lowland gorillas and golden monkeys.
Virunga National Park is located in the Congo– Nile river basin with the park’s central part encompassing two thirds of Lake Edward and extends to Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda. The southern sector has Lake Kivu and mountains Nyiragongo, Mikeno and Nyamuragira; and borders Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda. The northern part of the national park has savanna and montane forests and neighbors Semiliki and Rwenzori Mountain National Parks.
The national park is home to a third of the world’s population of mountain gorillas and has the renowned Senkwekwe Center, which is the only facility in the world that looks after orphaned mountain gorillas. This rehabilitation center is situated at the park’s headquarters in Rumangabo.
Virunga National Park in Congo is home to a large number of wildlife species which include; hippos, the African Bush Elephant, African buffaloes, Okapi, waterbucks, topi, common warthogs, Uganda Kob, bay duiker, red river hog, bongo, harnessed bushbuck, African Leopard, giant pangolin, yellow- backed duiker and blue duiker to mention but a few. All these unique wildlife species are attractions drawing quite a number of tourists to the national park.
The park also has a wide variety of primate species like; mountain gorillas, common chimpanzees, red- tailed monkeys, Dent’s Mona monkeys, blue monkeys, Hamlyn’s monkey, De Brazza’s monkey, Central African red colobus monkey, Olive baboon, grey- cheeked mangabey and the mantled guereza.
Virunga national park in Congo has four distinct ethnic groups of people living within the park’s boundaries and these include; the Hutu, Tutsi, Mbuti and the Batwa people. The park’s management partners with organizations around the world to work closely with communities living within and around the park; to provide resources needed to sustain the livelihoods of the people living in these communities.
What to do in Virunga National Park in Congo.
Mountain Gorilla Trekking:
Gorilla Trekking in Virunga National Park in Congo can be tracked at a fee of 400 USD; with trekking activities starting at Bukima Patrol Post. Tracking can last a period of 3- 8 hours with an hour of direct contact with the gorillas. Other gorilla families that can be tracked by tourists in Virunga National Park include; Bageni, Humba, Mapuwa, Lulengo, Munyaga, Nyakamwe and Rugendo.
Virunga National Park shelters a third of the population of mountain gorillas in the world. The national park has 8 habituated gorilla groups available for tourists to track, with the Kabirizi gorilla family being the largest and most sought after group by gorilla trekkers. This gorilla group can be found in the Bukima sector and has a total of 34 individuals.
The best time for tourists to go gorilla trekking in Congo’s Virunga National Park is during the dry seasons which are between June to August and December to February. Don’t forget to pack a good pair of hiking boots when heading out to go track mountain gorillas.
Hiking to Mount Nyiragongo:
Tourists visiting Virunga national park can go hiking on Nyiragongo Mountain. Mountain Nyiragongo is a stratovolcano found within the national park and tourists can embark on hiking expeditions to the lava lake in the mountain. Hiking activities to the mountain begin at the head trail at Kibati Patrol post, which is a 30 min drive from Goma city and an hour from Mikeno lodge. Hiking expeditions start at exactly 9am and last between 1- 6 hours.
Tourists visiting Virunga National Park in Congo can certainly enjoy spending quality time with the Tongo group of chimpanzees which have been habituated. The chimpanzees are found in the forested island of Tongo in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Chimpanzee Habituation permits are 100 USD in Congo.
Hiking Mountain Rwenzori:
From the Congo side, tourists in Virunga National Park can embark on a hiking expedition on Mountain Rwenzori, which sits on the borders of Uganda and the DRC. Hiking expeditions on Mount Rwenzori from the Congo side take between 4- 6 days and is best done during March, June and August.
Other activities carried out in Virunga National Park include; guided nature walks, landscape viewing and bird watching.
Accommodation in Virunga National Park in Congo.
Virunga national park is situated in eastern part of Democratic Republic of Congo and has few accommodation facilities compared to other gorilla destinations in Bwindi national park and Volcanoes national park. The accommodation facilities in Virunga national park range from luxury, midrange and budget, they include Mikeno Lodge, Bukima Tented Camp, Tchegera Island Tented Camp, Nyiragongo Summit Shelter, and Kibumba Tented Camp in south eastern part of Virunga, Lulimbi Tented Camp in the eastern part, and Lake Kivu hotel in Goma among others. Lodges in Virunga national park offer quiet and conducive atmosphere for relaxation especially after gorilla trekking, great scenic views of Virunga forest and the surrounding communities, views of wildlife species, spacious and comfortable beds, prepare both local and international dishes for the visitors to enjoy their stay during the safari tour in Democratic Republic of Congo.
How to get to Virunga National Park in Congo.
It is easy and more convenient for visitors to access Virunga National Park from Gisenyi in Rwanda. Travelers will have to drive for 3 hours from Kigali to Gisenyi town and cross the Rwanda- Congo border at Le Grande Barrier into Goma in Congo. It takes between 1-2 hours’ drive from Goma to Virunga National Park in Congo.
Alternatively, visitors to Virunga National Park can travel by air to Goma International Airport using Ethiopian Airlines. Goma is the starting point for all gorilla trekking safaris in Congo. All gorilla trekking tours to Virunga National Park are organized by the park, which also provides the transportation of tourists from Goma to the national park and back.
If you are planning to travel to a quiet, serene and tranquil destination with friends and family, then Virunga National Park in Congo is the perfect escape that you are looking for. Enjoy spending quality time with your loved ones in this tropical getaway.