The Kahuzi-Biega National Park is a protected area near Bukavu town in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is situated near the western bank of Lake Kivu and the Rwandan border. Established in 1970, the park is named after two dormant volcanoes, Mount Kahuzi and Mount Biega, which are within its limits. With an area of 6,000 square kilometers.
Kahuzi-Biega is one of the biggest national parks in the country. Set in both mountainous and lowland terrain, it is one of the last refuges of the rare species of Eastern lowland gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri), an endangered category under the IUCN Red List. The park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, inscribed in 1980 for its unique biodiversity of rainforest habitat and its eastern lowland gorillas.
The 75,000ha of land covered by park consists of the Mitumba Mountain range, the western mountains of the Great Rift Valley. The two main peaks, Mount Kahuzi (3,308 m) and Mount Biéga (2,790 m) are extinct volcanoes, and the massif dates from the late Tertiary or early Quaternary.The lowland sector in the Zairean central basin covers the watersheds of the tributaries of the Luka and Lugulu rivers. These both drain into the River Lualaba. The extension lies below 1,500 m apart from isolated peaks such as Mount Kamani (1,700 m), and consists of mountains cut by deep valleys. Undulating terrain in the west forms a belt between the two zones.
Straddling the Albertine Rift and the Congo Basin, Kahuzi-Biega National Park is an exceptional habitat for the protection of the rainforest and the eastern lowland gorillas, Gorilla berengei graueri. Extending over 600,000 ha, are dense lowland rainforests as well as Afro-montane forests, with bamboo forests and some small areas of sub-alpine prairies and heather on Mounts Kahuzi (3,308 m) and Biega (2,790 m).
The Park contains a flora and fauna of exceptional diversity, making it one of the most vital sites in the Albertine Rift Valley region, it is also one of the ecologically richest regions of Africa and worldwide. In particular, the most important world population of eastern lowland gorillas that use the mosaic of habitats found in the areas covered by Kahuzi-Biega National Park.
Kahuzi-Biega National Park contains a greater diversity of mammal species than any other site in the Albertine Rift Valley Region. It is the second most important site of the region for both endemic species and in terms of specific diversity. The Park protects 136 species of mammals, among which the star is the eastern lowland gorilla and thirteen other primates, including threatened species such as the chimpanzee, the colubus bai and cercopiuthic of Hoest and Hamlyn. Other extremely rare species of the eastern forests of the DRC are also found, such as the giant forest genet and the aquatic genet. Characteristic mammals of the central African forests also live in the Park, such as the bush elephant, bush buffalo, hylochere and bongo.
The park is situated in an important endemism zone (Endemic Bird Area) for birds identified by Birdlife International. The Wildlife Conservation Society established a complete list of birds in the Park in 2003 with 349 species, including 42 endemic. Also, the Park was designated as a centre of diversity for plants by IUCN and WWF in 1994, with at least 1,178 inventoried species in the highland zone, although the lowland yet remains to be recorded. The Park is one of the rare sites of sub-Saharan Africa where the flora and fauna transition from low to highlands is observable. In effect, it includes all the stages of forest vegetation from 600 m to more than 2,600 m, dense low and middle altitude rainforests to sub-mountain to mountain and bamboo forests. Above 2,600 m at the summit of Mounts Kahuzi and Biega, sub-alpine vegetation has developed, with heather, and home to the endemic plant Senecio kahuzicus. The Park also contains plant formations, rare worldwide, such as the swamp and bog altitudes and the marshland and riparian forests on hydromorphic ground at all altitudes.
Birds in Kahuzi Beiga National Park
A rich diversity of birdlife is found within the park. Thirty of the 336 species birds found in the park are endemic to the Albertine Rift, including the Rockefeller’s sunbird, Ruwenzori Turaco, Grauer’s broadbill, Grauer’s warbler and Shelley’s crimsonwing. Birds play an important role in dispersing seeds throughout the park. Some species digest and excrete the seed, allowing seedlings to be spread far from the parent tree.
The hot, humid temperature in the lowland region is also ideal for insects that decompose plant material. A single leaf on the forest floor can be “digested” in only two months. Ants and termites alone account for more than 30% of the total biomass in a tropical forest.
Bukavu was established in 1901 by the Belgian colonial authorities and is the capital of South Kivu province. This picturesque city of about 250,000 boasts a pleasant subtropical climate and a scenic location between the southern shores of Lake Kivu and the forested mountains inland. The influences of Belgian colonial times can be found in the grand houses bordering the lake, the old cathedral Our Lady of Peace and in the magnificent College Alfajiri. This reputed academic institution’s establishment in 1937 heralded the beginning of mixed-race education in the Belgian Congo and yet its history is far from harmonious, being intricately tied in with the tumultuous history of eastern Congo itself. Its grounds were used as a base for a Belgian uprising against Mobutu in the 60s and as refugee camp following the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, and its walls are riddled with the bullet-holes from the subsequent invasion of Rwandan forces. The College Alfajiri thus serves as an important reminder of the past whilst at the same time, through its excellent academic programme, holding a key to the region’s full education.
Idjwi Island receives few visitors, but is a unique and unexplored travel destination. The Island is 340 sq km in size and 70 km in length, the second largest inland island in Africa. Located within Lake Kivu it can be seen clearly from both the Rwandan and Congolese main lands.
Activities include visiting one of the many pineapple plantations (and of course picking and eating one), village and nature walks, bird-watching, swimming in the lake and interacting with the local people to learn about life on Idjwi. Boat rides can also be organized to take you around the small islets surrounding the island, where you can also visit nearby fishing villages. Pay the fishermen a small tip to guide you through the lush, primary tropical forest on this little piece of paradise, abounding in bird life and also home to a troupe of as yet unidentified monkeys.
Lowland Gorillas in Kahuzi Beiga National Park
Among the 136 species of mammals identified in the park, the eastern lowland gorilla is the most prominent. According to a 2008 status report of the DR of Congo, the park had 125 lowland gorillas, a marked reduction from the figure of 600 gorillas of the pre-1990’s conflict period, and consequently the species has been listed in the endangered list. The park is the last refuge of this rare species. According to the census survey of eastern lowland gorillas reported by the Wildlife Conservation Society in April 2011, at least 181 gorillas were recorded in the park.
The Eastern Lowland Gorilla is a sub species closely related to the Mountain Gorilla, which resides in the mountains bordering Rwanda, Uganda and DRC. There are small differences between the two sub species. The Eastern Lowland Gorillas found in Kahuzi Biega are larger in size, with a bigger, longer face and fewer nose prints.
Male gorillas fight over three main things, territory, females and food. In Kahuzi Biega National Park disputes have occurred between the two habituated families, the Chimanuka and Mugaruka, named after the dominant male silverbacks. The latest dispute resulted in Chimanuka winning, after which he subsequent took all of the females and infants from Mugaranka for himself.
There are nine gorilla families in Kahuzi Biega. Two are habituated for visitors, Chimanuka and Mugaruka, both named after the dominant male silverback. Chimanuka is the silverback of a large family containing 36 members. Along with him there are 17 females and 18 infants aging from 6 months to 9 years old. The family is famous for having 4 sets of twins, a phenomenon unseen in any Eastern Gorilla populations. Mugaruka lost one hand in a poachers trap and is now a solitary male after losing his accompanying females and infants in a fight with Chimanuka.
The lowland gorillas are characterized by the following;
Eastern Lowland Gorillas are peaceful, mainly herbivorous animals that live in groups of 5-30 individuals. Individual males can weigh up to 250kg in captivity, but in the wild they usually weigh 200kg. Females are significantly smaller, with a maximum weight of 110kg. Eastern Lowland Gorillas live in family groups consisting of a large dominant male Gorilla and females and infants. Males are known as “Silverbacks” in reference to the distinctive silver hairs on their back upon reaching maturity. Gorillas are identified by their “nose prints,” which are the patterns of wrinkles on their noses. Each gorilla has a unique nose print.
The gestation period for female gorillas is 8 ½ months. Gorilla infants are helpless at birth, learning to walk independently around 9 months. Infant gorillas are nursed for about 3 years before becoming fully independent. Female gorillas gain maturity around the age of 10 years old and have only one baby every four years, meaning that over the 25 year life span she will only give birth to an average of 3 offspring. The slow reproductive rate means that it can take many years for a population to recover from threats such as hunting and ongoing conflict.
The diet of Eastern Lowland Gorillas mainly consists of leaves, but they have also been observed consuming fruit, seeds, bamboo shoots and insects. Mostly active during the day, they make a new nest each night, with mothers sharing with infants. Watching a gorilla sitting peacefully in the forest eating and socializing is a truly magical experience.
Gorillas communicate in a variety of different ways. Vocal communication occurs between individual gorillas, and within larger groups. Adults and infants have a variety of different calls depending on the situation. “Close” calls are commonly given within the group in situations of either potential separation or potential conflict. Extra-group calls serve to alert group members of potential predation and include “barks” or are given as long-distance threat displays upon detection of another group. These can also be accompanied by chest beating, a common non vocal communication method.
Lwiro Primate Rehabilitation Centre (CPRL) was established in 2002 to provide care and rehabilitation for orphaned primates, while working to ensure their survival in the wild. It is located on the grounds of CRSN, the Congolese Government Scientific Research Centre, which is located in an old Belgian colonial building. The sanctuary works closely with the ICCN and currently cares for 49 chimpanzees and over 60 monkeys. Other activities undertaken include education programs for local people, children, military and tourists. The old Belgian research centre located on the grounds also has some fascinating exhibits.
Located close to the park headquarters a visit to the sanctuary can be easily combined with a Gorilla trek in a day trip from Bukavu. Ask your tour operator or park staff to arrange a visit to the sanctuary. Entrance for foreigners is $25, which goes directly towards the costs of managing the sanctuary
Other primates in Kahuzi Beiga National Park
Other primates include the eastern chimpanzee, and several Cercopithecinae, Colobinae and owl-faced monkey. Some of the mammals include the bush elephant, bush buffalo, hylochere and bongo, Aquatic civet, eastern needle-clawed galago, Maclaud’s horseshoe bat, Ruwenzori least otter shrew, and Alexander’s bush squirrel.
- Lowland Gorilla Trekking
Visiting the Eastern Lowland Gorillas at Kahuzi Biega is a truly unforgettable experience. Just before the entrance to the park is the Tshivanga Visitor Centre. You will be greeted by park staff that will assist with payment and registration. Make sure you take a photo with the large gorilla statue while waiting for trackers locate the gorilla family. Once the location is confirmed you will begin to drive into the park.
Your guide will give you a short introduction before starting the forest hike. He will cover the history, geography and some facts about the gorilla family you will be visiting. The guide will also provide you with advice on how to behave when with the gorillas. Following the briefing you begin your journey along narrow jungle paths to meet the gorillas. Masks are worn to prevent gorillas from catching human disease. The length of this hike depends on the location of the gorillas. Some days they can be a 10-15 minute walk from the road, other days it can take over an hour of walking to reach the gorillas.
When you enter the territory of the gorillas you will be greeted by the enormous male silverback, making sure you are not a threat. After he accepts your presence a magical one hour of observing the gorillas will begin, which is truly a once in a lifetime experience.
Mount Kahuzi Hike
This is the highest peak in the park, at 3,308m. The climb takes approximately 4 hours through bamboo forest and sub alpine vegetation, and 3 hours to descend. The summit provides spectacular views of Lake Kivu and the city of Bukavu.
Mount Bugulumiza Trail-
This 6km trail starts near the Tshivanga Visitor Centre and covers terrain regularly occupied by the Chimanuka gorilla family. The summit offers amazing views of Mt Kahuzi and Mt Biega along with the nearby landscape. The hike takes about 3 hours return.
Mount Biega Hike
The second highest peak in the park lies at an altitude of 2790m. The vegetation differs significantly from Mount Kahuzi making it a wonderful ecological experience. The climb takes about 6 hours return, so it is important to make an early start. Park staff is currently working to construct a clear trail to Mt Biega, keep checking the website for updates.