A massif is a geological word that is used to refer to a section of the planet’s crust that is demarcated by faults or flexures. It is a topographically high part of the earth’s crust that is bounded by faults and may be shifted by tectonic movements.
The Virunga massif in this case, refers to an area containing a chain of 8 volcanoes that span across the three countries of Rwanda, Uganda D R Congo and covers 3 national parks of Parc National des Virunga (PNVi) in the DR Congo, Parc National des Volcans (PNV) in Rwanda and the Mgahinga Gorilla National Park (MGNP) in Uganda. The massif covers an area of over 8000 sqkm and derives its name from the Kinyarwanda word ‘ibirunga’ which literally means the volcanoes. The volcanoes in this chain include; Mt. Nyiragongo (3,462 metres) and Mt. Nyamuragira (3,063 metres) both in the Democratic Republic of Congo which are the only active ones.
Mt. Karisimbi is the highest of all the 8 volcanoes at 4,507 metres while Mt. Sabinyo (3,634 metres) is the oldest of the Virunga volcanoes and forms the border of Uganda, Rwanda and D R Congo. Other volcanoes include; Mt Mikeno, Mt Muhabura, Mt Bisoke, and Mt. Gahinga.
This Volcano chain is a branch of the Albertine Rift Mountains that border the western arm of the East African rift valley. The Virunga massif meets its eastern limit at Rwenzori Mountains.
This region is also highly volatile with rampant eruptions. The two most active volcanoes on the continent; Mt. Nyiragongo and Mt. Nyamuragira account for two fifth of the continent’s total eruptions and have registered some of the most tragic eruptions in history with some as more recent as 2010 as Nyiragongo erupted and the fluid lava destroyed people and property in the neighboring town of Goma. Nyiragongo is also known for its stunning lava lake which is the largest and most fluid of its kind in the World.
This region (Virunga massif) comprises of an outstanding diversity of habitats, including lakes at various altitudes, marshy deltas and peat bogs, savannahs and lava plains, low altitude equatorial forest and high altitude tropical forests while the high altitude glaciers, and snowfields of the Rwenzori Mountains come alive at the eastern border.
The vegetation in Virunga massif ranges from alpine/sub-alpine to Hagenia- Hypericum, mixed forest, bamboo, disturbed woodland, open grassland and swamp. The Virunga national park is highly dominated by the mixed forest type while in Parc National de Volcans (PNV), bamboo is the most abundant vegetation type, followed by Hagenia- Hypericum woodland. Mgahinga Gorilla NP is dominated by mixed forest and bamboo. The sector around Sabinyo has all the 7 habitat types represented in it and is also the most diversified spot in terms of species in this massif. The lowest number of habitat types occurs in the region south of Karisimbi volcano with only three types and is consequently the least diversified in terms of species.
The wildlife diversity in this massif is just awesome and next to none on the continent of Africa partly due to its proximity to the rich Albertine region. According to a comprehensive survey about the wildlife diversity in this region in 2004, it was revealed that there are 258 bird species including over 20 endemics and 4 threatened species. This was discovered after surveying a total of 123.50 km of reconnaissance trails in this region. The highest number of endemics was recorded in Mgahinga Gorilla NP (17) while the lowest number was recorded in Parc National de Volcans. About 39 bird species were forest species, 57 were less specialized species, while 28 were forest visitors and the rest were non-forest species that occupy the other habitat types that occur in the Virunga massif. The highest number of species diversity was recorded in the area around Sabinyo volcano while the least number of species was recorded south of Karisimbi Volcano.
In terms of flora diversity, the Virunga massif has over 878 species of plants, 124 of which are endemic and 7 species are recorded on the IUCN red list while 4 species are threatened. The highest number of these plants is in Parc National de Volcans while the least is in Mgahinga. The herbal plants account for the greatest percentage of the flora species in this massif.
The Fauna diversity is equally impressive with 86 recorded mammal species of which 34 of them are large mammals including the mountain gorilla, the buffalo, elephant, bush buck and the black fronted duiker among others. 18 species are endemic including the okapi, 3 are near endemic while 6 species are threatened and 16 are listed on the IUCN list. The habitat also shelters some of the continent’s most endangered creatures including the mountain gorilla, the golden monkey that is only found here and the blue monkey.
There are about 47 species of amphibians of which 16 are endemic and 9 are threatened. The reptile population is about 43 species of which 7 are endemic. The Virunga massif remains by far the most diversified and ecologically significant region on the continent and several conservation programs have found it fertile for species protection.
The main wildlife attraction with in the Virunga Massive region is the Nyiragongo active Volcanoes tour followed by gorilla trekking in Rwanda, Uganda and Congo. Other interesting tourism activities with in this region include golden monkey tracking, mountain hikes, rich cultural tours to mention but a few.
This massif is considered a high priority area where species richness, endemism and rarity are all considered as important conservation values, including those areas where levels of human disturbance are highest. The eastern part is important for richness and endemism, while the Karisimbi-Mikeno area is particularly significant for rare and threatened species.