Virunga National Park in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is one of the most iconic parks in Africa given its huge diversity of wildlife and stunning features like volcanoes, rivers and lakes. The park is located in the porous region of the Albertine Rift Valley where it extends about 300 km from north to south along the border with Uganda covering an area of 8,090 sq. km in total.
The two famous active volcanoes, Nyiragongo and Nyamuragira are found within Virunga National Park. The volcanoes have significantly influenced the park’s diverse wildlife and habitats which include over 3,000 species of flora and fauna. More than 300 of these are Albertine Rift endemics including the eastern gorilla (Gorilla beringei) and golden monkey.
Due to its rich diversity of habitats, impressive biodiversity and endemism, Virunga National Park was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. Virunga is also one of the three in parks in the Virunga Mountains area which protect the rare mountain gorillas. Furthermore in 1994, the park was included in the List of World Heritage in Danger due to civil unrest and the humanitarian crisis in the region.
Despite its huge tourism potential, Virunga National Park has for decades been ravaged by insecurity cases which included killing of park ranges and abduction of tourists by several militia groups operating in the region. The park has on several occasions been closed due such cases including the latest in 2018 though it was later reopened.
However, this has not forced travellers to completely abandon the park and it has continued to welcome hundreds of visitors who come to enjoy its breathtaking wildlife and adventure experiences. The park’s management is continuously doing its best to work with security agencies to ensure the safety of both rangers and animals as well as tourists who visit the park.
Why tourists have continued visiting Virunga National Park?
Virunga is one of the 3 national parks in the Virunga Mountains that protect the endangered mountain gorillas together with Volcanoes national park in Rwanda and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda. Gorilla trekking is arguably the most popular activity in the park which attracts hundreds of visitors. The park has 8 habituated gorilla groups that are visited daily. They include Kabirizi gorilla group, Humba gorilla group, Rugendo gorilla group, Mapuwa gorilla group, Lulendo gorilla group, Munyaga gorilla group, Nyakamwe gorilla group and Bageni gorilla group. Virunga’s gorilla trekking permit is sold at $400 per person which is far cheaper than Rwanda’s $1,500 and Uganda’s $700.
The chimpanzee habituation is one of the best wildlife experiences in Virunga national park. Trekkers are charged $100 per person to visit these amazing primates who share up to 98% of the human DNA just like the gorillas. The habituation exercise is aimed at making chimpanzees get used to the presence of humans which boosts tourism. During the exercise, visitors are led by rangers and trackers to follow chimps as they do their daily activities like feeding and playing on ground and in branches of trees.
Hiking Nyiragongo Volcano
Mount Nyiragongo, one of the most active volcanoes in the world which has experienced frequent eruptions in recent years with the most recent happening in May 2021. Nyiragongo’s eruptions are usually deadly claiming dozens of lives and destroying a lot of property.
In addition to seeing Nyiragongo’s red-hot crater at its top, hiking the volcano also rewards visitors with beautiful views of the Virunga ranges, stunning forests and other volcanoes in the area. Hikers are encouraged to carry drinking water to keep up with the energy demands of the volcano. Porters are also readily available for hire to help those who may run out energy to reach the top and also return safely.
Nature walks in Virunga National Park reward visitors with a close encounter to some of its outstanding features like volcanoes and wildlife species. Wildlife species commonly seen encountered in the park during nature walks include primates, birds, reptiles, amphibians, among others.
Batwa Cultural Tour
The Batwa are an indigenous tribe that have inhabited the Virunga forests for thousands of years. Despite civilisation which has taken up other communities, the Batwa kept their traditional life intact. They continue to live in forests in grass-thatched houses practising all traditional rituals including hunting. However, the need to promote conservation of wildlife and tourism has significantly affected the Batwa since they are evicted from forests and forced to resettle elsewhere.
The park management at Virunga has organised a cultural visit to the Batwa community where visitors get a chance to get close to these amazing people and enjoy everything they have to offer. Guests are welcomed with thrilling traditional performances of music and dance before they are introduced to the Batwa’s activities like farming, hunting, tool making, among others.