There is a lot to know about the Virungas, one of the most famous tourist areas in the world, away from its popular mountain gorillas. Everything within and around this tourist-rich area is worth discovering and knowing given the presence of a variety of breathtaking sceneries ranging from wildlife to summits for hiking, birding to nature walks and more amazingly the area also hosts the grave site for the celebrated primatologist Dian Fossey. Fossey is widely remembered for her tremendous contribution in the conservation and habituation of mountain gorillas and all travelers who love these primates owe her so much gratefulness. The Virungas form such a wide conservation territory as they straddle the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo. It goes beyond just a mere mountain range to a complex of tall standing volcanic cones sharing the same geological process that led to the formation of the Rift Valley. The Virunga ranges that are sometimes locally referred to as the Bufumbira mountains (Uganda) or Birunga (Rwanda) comprise of six volcanoes including 3 active ones. All the 3 active volcanoes exceed 3,000 meters above sea level led by Mount Karisimbi, the tallest standing at 4,507m. Mount Mikeno follows with 4,437m while Mount Muhabura stands at 4,127m. Locally there are names allocated to each individual mountain within the Virunga ranges reflecting the local beliefs and perceptions. “Gahinga” has been differently translated as “the hoe” or “pile of stones” referring to the breach on its flanks and its small size respectively. Muhabura is translated as “the guide” while Sabyinyo is related to the “old man’s teeth” given its jagged rim appearance. Bisoke and Karisimbi that feature partially in Rwanda were named after “a watering hole” and after the “color of a cowry shell” and the former was named referring to the Crater Lake near its peak.
History of eruptions in the Virungas
Geologically, all the Virunga Mountains are less than two million years old and currently, only two cones remain active. The deadliest eruption associated with the volcanoes happened in 1977 when Mount Nyiragongo(3,465m) North of Goma near Lake Kivu. The lava from the eruption filed the lava lake that had formed in the volcanoes’ main crater in 1894 and it drained instantly. The molten lava that was emitted flowed at a rate of 60km per hour and in the process, an estimated 2,000 people were killed and also occupying part of the Goma airport.
The distribution of the vegetation zones around the Virungas is not so much different from that of other large mountains in East Africa. Starting from 1000m to around 2800m, this altitude is dominated by moist broad-leaved semi-deciduous forests. Between 2,800-3,200m receive an annual rainfall of 2,000mm, which has attracted thick bamboo forests that overlap with tall hagenia woodland. Above this zone, a combination of grassland and marsh, the Afro-alpine moorland and are crossed with giant lobelia, which similarly occurs on the high altitude slopes of Rwenzori and Kilimanjaro. Beyond the 3,600m mark, there is a limited biodiversity variety with the area dominated by scatted patches of grasses, mosses, and lichens. The 1,265 floral species recorded across the Virungas include over 120 Albertine Rift endemics. Virunga Massif is home to the endangered mountain gorillas dwelling in the jungles of Volcanoes national park Rwanda, Virunga national park in DR Congo and Mgahinga gorilla national park in Uganda. The region is, therefore, the first stop for gorilla trekking safaris together with Bwindi forest national park in southwestern Uganda.
As widely known, the Virunga’s hot cake is the famous primates, the mountain gorillas that are shared among 3 neighboring national parks each located in the three different countries that share the Virunga Conservation area. The parks include Volcanoes national park (Rwanda), which also protects the Dian Fossey grave, Virunga national park (DRC) and Mgahinga gorilla national park in Uganda. However, it is rather Bwindi Impenetrable forest national park a bit further northwards in Uganda that hosts the majority of these famous gentle primates. The hilly-forested park currently hosts more than half of the world’s total population of mountain gorillas estimated to be around 1000 individuals. The Virungas are also a good home for another amazing primate species, the golden monkey commonly found in Uganda’s Mgahinga gorilla national park. In terms of large mammal species, the population of buffaloes in the ranges is estimated at about 1000 whereas elephants range between 20 and 100 individuals. Other mammals include the forest highland species of the giant forest hog, bushbuck and the yellow-backed duiker. The bird count in the Virungas is not well known given that 36 more species that were unrecorded were sighted in 2004 during a biodiversity study conducted across borders making the Virunga’s total checklist 294 of which 20 are Albertine Rift Endemics.
The most recent eruption associated with the Virunga was in 1994 when a new lake of lava began to rise in the main Nyiragongo crater and it orchestrated into the 2002 eruption that was very destructive. This time about 50 people were killed when lava flowed down the flanks of the volcano to Goma. This time there was a massive exodus out of Goma as close to 500,000 crossed over to the nearby towns in Rwanda.