Virunga National Park is a recognized UNESCO World Heritage Site positioned to the eastern parts of D.R.Congo forming boundaries with Rwanda and Uganda in the west. Virunga National Park is the oldest National Park on the African continent and one of the most diverse protected areas on Africa soil.
The Park makes coverage of 7800 Km² which includes Savannah plains, forests, lava plains, valleys, swamps and glaciated Mount Rwenzori peaks, active Volcanoes that combine to make their encounter in Congo Safari worth remembering. Virunga National Park was established in the year 1925 under the directive of King Albert I of Belgium and become a World Heritage site in 1979.
Virunga National Park gives refugee to almost a quarter of the world’s endangered mountain gorillas along with the eastern lowland gorillas and Chimpanzees. Virunga is the only National Park in the world where 3 Ape species stay together. Besides these apes, Virunga National Park also hosts the endangered Okapi which are more like a Zebra and giraffe. The park also is home to large populations of Hippopotamus, both savanna and forest elephants, lions and counts of bird species.
Virunga National Park is bisected into 3 regions and these include:
Rwenzori Mountains region: this is in the northern part of the park bordering Uganda to the west and can be sighted on a Uganda Safari. The Mount Rwenzori rises to 5000m on the Congo side forming one of the magical scenic wonders that one on Congo Safari will always find memorable to explore. This lies within the Semliki Valley besides the Rwenzori Mountains where the Okapi are common.
The middle section of the park covers Lake Edward which is the home to over 50 species of fish along with counts of birds, the Ishasha river valley.
The Virunga Mountain Section famous for its mountain gorilla populations which thrive on the edges of Mikeno Volcano rising to 4380m. Besides gorillas, the southern sector is famous for the dense forest cover which home to large Chimpanzee populations and a range of monkey species. The Nyiragongo volcano rising to 3470m stands across the valley and travellers on Congo tours that hike to the top of this mountain are treated to the magnificent of the largest lava lake in the world. In the same region, lies the Nyamulagira Volcano Mountain the most active volcano in Africa since the 1800s and has erupted for over 40 times with the recent eruptions being 2010 and 2011.
Virunga National Park shelters over 2,000 species of Plants with the 10% of these limited in range to the Albertine Rift Valley. The Park is also home to 706 species of birds, 218 species of Mammals, 78 Species of Amphibians, 109 Species of Reptiles and 22 species of Primates that include a third of World’s critically endangered Mountain Gorillas, Eastern Chimpanzees and Lowland Grauer’s Gorillas making it the only park in the world where the mentioned Apes thrive together.
Overland via Uganda, cross the border in Bunagana, from where the Mountain gorilla sites Jomba and Bikenge are easily accessable within 1 hour. The border crossing is easy, and a local visa can be bought at the border for only 50$, however this visa is not a fully recognized visa and can only be used to visit the park and subsequently leaving the country at the Bunagana border post again. so one can visit Virunga National park as part of a Uganda Safari Tour.
Overland via Rwanda, cross the border at Gisenyi/Goma, the border crossing is easy if you pre-arranged a visa, if not it will be difficult or expensive
Fly into Goma, from within the DRC many flights connect to Goma, from outside the DRC Entebbe is the only city connected by TMK. Once again make sure you have a pre-arranged visa.
Fauna / Wildlife as an attraction in Virunga national park
The Virunga National Park supports a count of 218 species of mammals, 109 species of Reptiles and over 78 species of amphibians. The Park supports a range of 22 species of primate among which include the three great ape species namely the Mountain Gorilla, Eastern Low land Gorilla and the Chimpanzee. The park supports the third of the remaining populations of mountain gorillas and stands as the only park in the world where the three species of great Apes thrive. Other interesting species include the hippopotamus, elephant, buffalo, a range of antelope like defassa waterbuck, kob, topi, warthog, lion and a range of monkeys.
Birds as attractions on Virunga National Park
Virunga National Park features a count of 706 species of birds of which 24 of these are considered endemic to the Park. Considering the Virunga’s diverse habitats, the birds of various categories can be explored. Some of the bird species in Virunga National Park include the ibisis, herons, egrets, duck, bitterns, geese, cormorants, darters, skimmers, open bills, shoebills, ospreys, francolins, gulls, warblers along with weavers. The lower Rusthuru River Valley features counts of Pelicans while the far north features the papyrus yellow warbler. The Grauer’s swamp warbler thrive in the volcanic highlands, the Bamboo, heath stream and forest thicket supports Rockefeller’s sunbird while the Ruwenzori mountain forests support the Shelley’s crimson wing and Stuhlmann’s double collared sunbird along with the Rwenzori Turaco, the Handsome Francolin among other species.
Flora / Vegatation in Virunga national park
The Virunga National Park is positioned in the interception of various geographical zones enabling it shelter a range of vegetation species with immense diversity. The flora diversity in Virunga National Park include the equatorial forest along the Semiliki; bamboo and Hagenia forest on the mountains; wooded savannah of the Rwindi; steppes; various low savannahs; swamps and transitional habitats; dry thick forest; Neoboutonia macrocalyx forest on the lava plains; wet thick forest; alpine forests; and sparse vegetation above 4,300 m comprising mainly lichens and spermatophyta, although Graminae have been found growing at over 5,000 m.
Mountain gorillas as an attraction in Virunga National Park
A total of 880 mountain gorillas are apparently known to be thriving in the world and the 480 of these gorillas live in the greater Virunga Massif where the Virunga National Park is found. The Eastern lowland gorillas – the Gorilla gorilla graueri thrive on Mount Tshiaberimu. The Mountain gorillas thrive in Mikeno sector which is close to 2 ½ hours’ drive from Goma. The gorillas can also be accessed from the Uganda’s border post at Bunagana. The Congo Gorilla Permit is given at $400 which is cheaper than Uganda’s $600 and Rwanda’s $1500. The permits are booked through the Congolese Wildlife Authority Goma Sales Office. Book yourself a Congo Gorilla Safari Tour now.
Nyiragongo is a beautiful strato volcano that features the world’s largest lava lake. The volcano’s forested lower slopes are home to a variety of animals, including chimpanzees, monkeys, and bushbuck. Nyiragongo’s summit rim is largely devoid of vegetation and is sometimes dusted with snow. From the rim, visitors can peer down into a churning lava lake and see and hear hot gases exploding up though a mosaic of molten lava. Although predictable and therefore safe for tourists, Nyiragongo is greatly feared during eruptions. Because of the low silica content of its lava, Nyiragongo’s lava flows are extremely fluid. During the 2002 eruption, some of Nyiragongo’s lava flows were clocked at 100 km/hr (62 mph) and reached all the way to Lake Kivu.
Treks to the summit of Nyiragongo volcano begin at the Kibati patrol post, which is approximately 30 minutes by car from Goma. The patrol post is less than a one hour drive from the Mikeno Lodge in Rumangabo. Park rangers lead all treks and porters (unaffiliated with the park) are available for hire. The time required to reach the summit depends on the average fitness of each group, but typically takes 4 – 6 hours. Altitude sickness can be an issue for some because the climb begins at 1989m (6,525 ft) and ascends to 3470m (11,382ft) in a short time. Proper hydration is the best way to adapt to the change in altitude. People prone to Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) should speak to their physicians about taking preventative measures before making the climb. It is possible for fitter people to climb up and descend in one day, but the vast majority chooses to overnight in the basic accommodations available at the top (included in the permit fee) because the best time to view the lava lake is at night.
In February 2014, a Congolese team trained by Frankfurt Zoological Society began habituating a group of chimpanzees living in the forests around park headquarters in Rumangabo. Guests staying at Mikeno Lodge can join this team on their daily visits to the chimpanzees. The day begins when a group of local trackers leave their camp at 4:30 am to locate where the chimpanzees spent the previous night. Lodge guests set out at 6:00 am to find the chimpanzees. Groups are limited to 4 people and time with the chimpanzees is restricted to one hour. Bookings for these walks can be arranged by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
The History Behind Habituating Virunga’s Chimpanzees
In 1987, Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS) developed an 80 km network of trails inside the Tongo forest and began a two-year process of habituating chimpanzees to the presence of humans. By 1989, approximately 50 chimpanzees had been habituated. Treks soon began, and for the next three years, provided an important source of tourism revenue for the park and the small community of Tongo. Unfortunately, civil unrest put an end to chimpanzee tourism from 1992-2001. Despite this prolonged period of conflict, Virunga National Park rangers steadfastly protected and monitored Tongo’s chimpanzees. The peace that returned to the Kivu’s was short-lived. It wasn’t until 2010 that FZS and a team of 35 people from the local community was able to re-launch the habituation process. By June of that year, the chimpanzees were once again habituated and visitors began trekking in to see them on a regular basis. In April 2012, hostilities erupted yet again and chimpanzee trekking had to be halted. The M23 rebellion, as the conflict was known, eventually ended in January 2014. The Tongo team still visits this population of chimpanzees on a daily basis. The group now consists of 32 individuals.
If you don’t feel well at the time of your scheduled walk (i.e. you have a cold, fever, diarrhea, or persistent sore throat) – please cancel. Like the gorillas, chimpanzees are extremely susceptible to human illnesses. Chimpanzees have died after being exposed to human respiratory viruses and other common ailments.
Virunga National Park also offers spectacular trekking and climbing trips to the Rwenzori Mountains in the north of the park. Known also as the “Mountains of the Moon,” the Rwenzori’s reach a height of 5,109 m (16,761 ft) and contain the largest glaciers left on the African continent. Those who trek and climb in the Ruwenzori’s will experience a stunning variety of landscapes, including bamboo forests, alpine meadows, lakes, and snowcapped peaks. The flora and fauna of the Rwenzori is equally diverse. Forest elephant, Okapi, chimpanzees, and numerous bird species make the Rwenzori’s their home. The best weather in the Ruwenzori’s usually happens from January through mid-March and June to late August.
Most people fly into the town of Beni and then take a local taxi to Virunga’s Mutsora ranger station. Flights from Goma can be arranged through local tour operators. Visitors also travel overland to the Rwenzoris by coming through Uganda and crossing into the DR Congo at the Mpondwe/Kasindi border.
The cost of a permit for the Rwenzoris is $200 for both trekkers and climbers. For an additional $116, visitors are welcome to overnight in the huts along the track. At this time, the park is not able to supply gear or food for guests, so please come prepared. Trekkers wanting only to reach the summit hut will need good hiking boots, rain gear, and a warm base layers. Those wanting to climb Margherita Peak or any of the other summits, will need to bring their own climbing hardware, crampons, and ice axes. Bivouc gear is also a good idea. A Virunga ranger accompanies all trekkers and climbers and independent porters are available for hire. Porters negotiate their prices on the spot, but the cost is typically less than a dollar per kilogram with a maximum of 15 kg/porter.