The Virunga Mountains, also known as the Virunga Massif or the Virunga Conservation Area is one the largest protected areas in Africa covering territories in 3 countries in East and Central Africa. The Area stretches across borders of Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda and Uganda.
Wildlife in Virunga Mountains
The Virunga Conservation Area is mostly known for protecting rare endangered species including mountain gorillas, golden monkeys, endemic birds, among others. The area protects half of the global population of mountain gorillas with the other half protected in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park located in the north not far away from the Virunnga Area. However, the area is also home to many other species including primates like chimpanzees, monkeys, baboons as well as big game like elephants, buffalo and leopard. Smaller species like bush pigs, duiker and antelopes have also been seen in the area. Some of the endemic bird species in the Virunga Conservation Area include the Rwenzori Turaco, Shoebill Balaeniceps rex, Grauer’s swamp Wabler, among others.
There are 3 major national parks within the Virunga Mountains with each located in a different country though still close to each other but only separated by the borders. These include Virunga National Park in the DRC, Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda. These protect the wildlife in the area and other important sites like the volcanoes which attract many travellers interested in hiking.
Volcanoes within the Virunga Mountains
The Viringa Mountains are composed of up to 8 Volcanic summits including two active volcanoes of Nyiragongo and Nyamuragira located in DRC in Virunga National Park. Others include Karisimbi – the highest at 4,507m, Bisoke and Sabyinyo in Rwanda, Gahinga and Muhabura in Uganda and Mikemo in DRC. Mount Nyiragongo in Virunga National Park is one of the most active volcanoes in the world with its latest eruption happening in 2021.
Tourism in the Virunga Mountains
With such impressive numbers of rare species and other attractions, the Virunga Mountains are now one the leading tourist destinations in Africa. The successful conservation of wildlife has made way for the development of tourism in the area offering a variety of amazing tourist experiences;
Gorilla trekking is the most popular tourist activity in the Virunga Mountains given the presence of the endangered mountain gorillas within the 3 parks. Each park has got several groups of habituated mountain gorillas which are visited regularly by tourists. The rules and regulations of gorilla trekking are the same in all the 3 countries. Each habituated gorilla group is visited once per day by a group not exceeding 8 trekkers who are permitted to spend an hour in the presence of these gentle giants.
The gorilla permit which allows you to visit the animals is sold at different prices in all the 3 countries. Rwanda’s permit is sold at $1,500 per person, Uganda at $700 and DR Congo at $450. Uganda also offers a gorilla habituation experience to travellers at $1,500 per person where they spend 4 hours following the gorillas with the trackers as they try to make them get used to the presence of humans. This experience takes place exclusively in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. Due to the strict gorilla conservation rules which limit the numbers of tourists visiting gorillas, travellers are encouraged to book their gorilla permits at least 6 months in advance.
Other tourist experiences in the Virunga Mountains
In addition to gorilla trekking, other wildlife experiences in the Virunga Mountains include golden monkey tracking which takes place in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and Mghainga Gorilla National Park where the species is found. Others include bird watching, nature walks, hiking, cultural and historical tours. Cultural experiences include a visit to the community of the amazing Batwa pygmies, an indigenous tribe who always excite guests by their thrilling traditions and performances. The Dian Fossey hike takes place in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda where trekkers visit and pay tribute at the tomb of American primatologist Dian Fossey who started the incredible work of gorilla protection in the 1960s. Her tomb is located at the famous Karisoke Research Centre where she used to carryout her work of studying mountain gorillas as well as protecting them. Fossey was murdered by poachers in 1985 who ended her successful work of gorilla conservation which she undertook for almost two decades.