Located in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Virunga National Park is one of Africa’s largest national parks. It extends up to 7800 square kilometers which is approximately 3000 square miles, straddling just at the border with Uganda. This spectacular forest park is largely comprised of the vast savanna grassland, thick rainforest, erosion valleys, active volcanoes, lava plains and the Mount Rwenzori that comes with its glaciers that you won’t to catch a glimpse at while on Congo safari. It was established in 1925 making it Africa’s oldest national park and in addition, it boasts of its intense biodiversity.
Opened in 1929, this is the oldest and most famous park in Zaire. It stretches along the border with Rwanda and Uganda and was established for the protection of mountain gorillas. The park has expanded since 1929 and now has an area of 800,000 ha. Buffaloes, antelopes, hippos, warthogs, elephants, leopards and lions can be spotted in the park.
Formerly named Albert National Park, Virunga National Park is a 7,800-square-kilometre (3,000 sq mi) National Park that stretches from the Virunga Mountains in the South, to the Rwenzori Mountains in the North, in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, bordering Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and Rwenzori Mountains National Park and Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda.
The park is the oldest protected areas in Africa and it was established in 1925. The park is a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site since 1979. Today the park is facing a lot of problems such as poaching, civil wars, enchroachment and other threats that have seriously damaged its wildlife population.
Virunga National Park is home to about a quarter of the world’s critically endangered mountain gorillas. The park’s two other Great Ape species, mountain gorillas and chimpanzees, make Virunga the only park in the world to host three taxa of Great Apes.
Remarkably, about quarter of the rare mountain gorillas that thrive on earth today call this scenic forest park a home. A side from these incredible primate species, there are also other amazing creatures that thrive within here including the eastern chimpanzees, forest elephants, hippos, hippos, okapis and varied bird species.
There are also large colonies of hippopotami, forest and savanna elephants, lions, and numerous rare bird species can also be found in the park.
This park is subdivided into 3 sections:-
The Rwenzori Mountains part which is situated in the north just at the border with Uganda. It stands at about 5000 meters that is about 16400 feet along the Congo part and features as the 3rd highest mountain in African continent. This natural wonder boasts of its snow capped peaks and its glaciers resulted into scenic Semuliki River which flows to discharge its water into Lake Albert. It is around this area that most okapi species can be spotted. As you get to middle part, you will find Lake Edward that features approximately 50 species of fish, the Ishasha River Valley that comprises of hippos whose numbers have continuously kept on recovering and lastly, there is Rwindi plains that features wildlife species like warthogs, buffaloes, topis, elephants among others.
Lastly, there is Virunga Mountain area which is set within the southern side of this park. It is from this region that you can find the rare mountain gorillas that dwell around the slopes of Mikeno Volcano that stands at 4380 meters. Its thick forest cover that is confined within this area is a reason why mountain gorillas and chimpanzees do exist here. Away from primates, don’t miss to strike your eyes with the powerful volcanoes like Mount Nyiragongo (3470) and Nyamuragira.
During the colonial era, this park was best known as Parc Nationale des Virunga when it was gazetted under orders of King Albert of Belgium in 1925 and in 1979, it designated into a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today, it is run by the Institute Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) which works hand in hand with the Virunga Foundation. Its establishment was mainly to offer refuge to its natural wonders that include over 706 avifaunal species, 78 amphibian species, 109 reptile species, 218 species of mammal, 22 species of primates and others. The other wildlife species to catch a glimpse at this park include antelope families such as water bucks, topis, Kobs as well as buffaloes, elephants, lions and hippos. For birders, the notable bird species for you to spot out include the open bills, shoebills, francolins, weavers, warblers, bitterns, cormorants, skimmers, darters, herons, ibis, pelicans on the lower Rusthuru River Valley and in the far north, you will find most of the papyrus yellow warbler. On the volcanic highlands, there are Shelley’s crimson wings, stuhlmann’s double collared sunbird plus the Rwenzori Turacos, handsome francolin a mention but a few.
Virunga National Park features unique flora due to its strategic location. It features the equatorial forest that extends up to the Semliki Valley, the bamboo, Mountain hagenia, Rwindi savanna woodland, Neaboutoniamacrocalyx forest along the lava plains, swamps and low land savannas, dry dense forest as well as the high altitude dwelling vegetation for instance lichens that thrive above 4300 meters.
Things to Do
The park is one of the four national parks where you can track the endangered mountain gorillas. This has made this park, one of the best in Congo attracting tourists interest in gorilla tours in Africa. Virunga National Park is unrivaled in its diversity of landscapes and ecosystems.
Mountain gorilla trekking
Virunga National Park is one of world’s most incredible destinations where the unique mountain gorillas thrive. These amazing creatures thrive within the park’s Mikeno area approximately 2 to 3 hours’ drive off Goma. Visitors on gorilla safari to Congo can connect from Uganda through Bunagana or from Rwanda and permits can be obtained at $400 at the Congolese Wildlife Authority Sales Office in Goma or direct from ICCN. Gorilla treks in the Virunga National Park normally kick start at Bukima Patrol Post and this is about 2 to 6 hours less or more depending on your hiking speed, location of gorillas and nature of the habitat. Equally, it is an hour that is given to you to strike your imaginations with these great apes. Gorilla treks in this park are conducted in any of its habituated gorilla families for instance Humba group, Kabirizi, Rugendo, Lulengo, Munyaga group, Mapuwa ground and others.
Nyiragongo Volcano hike
This volcano is one of a few most active volcanoes in the world, comprising of powerful lava lake on its summit. A hike to its summit rewards travel endeavors with breathtaking views over its glowing lava lake. Hikes normally start at Kibati Patrol Post about half an hour’s drive from Goma city and an hour off Mikeno lodge. Hikes usually last for about 4 to 6 hours. Other activities to enjoy in this park include Rwenzori Mountain trek, birding, visit the Tongo chimpanzees and others.
The park is managed by the Congolese National Park Authorities, the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) and its partner the Virunga Foundation, formerly known as the Africa Conservation Fund (UK).
Where to spend a night while on Congo safari in Virunga National Park
To make your safari complete at Virunga National Park, there are incredible safari lodges for your overnight stay and they include Mikeno Lodge, Bukima Tented Camp which is set at the boundary of the park and where gorilla treks begin from, Nyiragongo Volcano Summit Shelters, Tchegera Island Tented Camp and others.