Virunga National Park
Virunga National Park is in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979, but was labelled a site in danger in 1994 due to political conflict and poaching.
Virunga National Park is a 7800-km² World Heritage Site that lies on the eastern border of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it borders Uganda as well as Rwanda. It is the oldest national park in Africa and the second oldest in the world (after Yellowstone). It is named after the Virunga Mountain (volcanoes) range that lie in the south of the park. The park however is much larger and stretches all the way north to envelop Lake Edward as well as the Rwenzori Mountains.
The history of the park is deeply affected by the country of which it is part. For much of its long history, Virunga National Park has struggled to survive through many of Congo's troubled times. Thanks to the dedication of certain politicians, conservationists, park rangers and wardens, the park has survived, and is experiencing a dramatic renewal.
The park was founded in 1925 by King Albert I of Belgium as Albert National Park, the first national park on the continent of Africa. It was founded primarily to protect the gorillas living in the forests of the Virunga Mountains controlled by the Belgian Congo, but later expanded north to include the Rwindi Plains, Lake Edward and the Rwenzori Mountains in the far north.
In the first 35 years, the boundary of the park took shape, poaching was kept to a minimum and sustainable tourism thrived due to the work of a large body of hand-picked Congolese rangers and dedicated wardens. Land remuneration and the use of park resources such as fishing and hunting by the local population became an on-going problem and attempts were made to solve these issues.
When the Belgians granted Congo independence in 1960 the new state deteriorated rapidly, and so did the park. It was only in 1969 when President Mobutu began to take a personal interest in conservation, that the park was revived. In the process it was renamed Virunga National Park, and the first Congolese Wildlife Authority was established (now called ICCN).
Virunga fared well for the better part of the 1970s. Foreign investment helped to improve the park's infrastructure and training facilities, and the park became a popular destination for tourists, receiving on average 6500 visitors a year. In 1979 UNESCO designated the park as a World Heritage Site.
In the mid-1980s the Mobutu regime began to lose its hold on power and the country began a long slide into chaos. The park suffered terribly. Poaching depleted Virunga's large mammal populations, infrastructure was destroyed, and many rangers were killed. The Congolese Wildlife Authority slowly lost control of Virunga and UNESCO changed the World Heritage Site status to "endangered."
Over the 25 years that followed, the park staff endured an almost uninterrupted series of trials that included a refugee crisis from the Rwandan Genocide that contributed to the severe destruction of park forests, and armed militia penetration throughout the park. The Kivu War, which began in 2004 (and is ongoing at the end of 2020) centered on the park, with rebel forces occupying the park headquarters and evicting the park's staff. By the end of 2008 it seemed as if Virunga was finished.
The political situation in the DRC has changed dramatically since then. The park is back in the hands of the ICCN and enjoying the greatest resurgence of tourism and development in its history. International donors are investing in the development of the park's infrastructure at unprecedented levels. Virunga's management is efficient and transparent, and morale among the rangers is at an all time high.
Tourism increased from zero in 2008, to approximately 2000 in 2010 with numbers growing steadily. New tourist activities are being developed in the park, including the habituation of chimpanzees in the Tongo forest and a high-end lodge near the center of the three main tourist attractions in the southern sector, north of Goma.
However, armed men killed at least six rangers and wounded several others in an ambush in Jan 2021.
Africa's first national park survived decades of chaos against all the odds, not because of circumstance but because of the dedication of the rangers and staff who believe in the value of saving Virunga National Park and its wildlife.
The nightly glow from the lava lake within the Nyiragongo volcano can be seen from miles away.
Virunga National Park is unrivalled in its diversity of landscapes and ecosystems. The parks bounderies envelop low land tropical forest in the north; high alpine forest in the Rwenzori Mountains; riverine forest around the Semliki and Rutshuru rivers; swamplands around lake Edward, savannah north and south of the lake; montane forest on the hills of the Virunga volcanoes and old (and new) lava flow landscapes.
Flora and fauna
The park boasts an astounding biodiversity due to the large variety of habitats it offers. In the southern sector the Mountain Gorillas attract most attention but the montane forests are also home to other primates such as Chimpanzees, Golden monkeys, Blue monkeys and black and white colobus. Forest Elephants and Buffalo are also found in this area as is the very shy Golden Cat.
The central area of the park consists mostly of savannah with species such as lion, leopard, kob, hyena, topi, and warthog. The lake, once containing the largest population of hippos (over 20,000), is slowly regenerating after many troubled years and hippos and crocodiles are once again a common sight.
In the north of the park in the deep Congolese forest the most elusive of African creatures is found: the Okapi.
The southern sector (Gorillas and Volcano) of Virunga National Park is easily accessible in a number of different ways the most common are:
- Overland via Uganda, cross the border in Bunagana, from where the Mountain gorilla sites Jomba and Bikenge are easily accessible within 1 hour. The border crossing is easy, and a local visa can be bought at the border for only US$50, however this visa is not a fully recognized visa and can only be used to visit the park and subsequently leaving the country at the Bunagana border post again.
- Overland via Rwanda, cross the border at Gisenyi/Goma, the border crossing is easy if you prearranged a visa, if not it will be difficult or expensive (US$280 if bought at the border).
- Fly into Goma, from within the DRC many flights connect to Goma. From outside the DRC Ethiopian is the only international airline flying to Goma from Addis Abeba. Once again make sure you have a prearranged visa.
- Virunga National Park can organize a 2-week tourist visa. The price is US$105 (end of 2014), but it must be combined with a purchase of any Virunga National Park permit. The cheapest permit is US$255 (end of 2014) for Nyiragongo trek. The visa process takes 1-2 weeks, so apply in advance. Keep a close eye on the Virunga National Park Tourism Website
Fees and permits
Virunga National Park permits:
- Mountain Gorilla Permit: US$465 (2014) (less than the cost in Uganda and Rwanda). These can be bought online via the Virunga National Park Tourism Website
- Nyiragongo Volcano Trek Permit: US$255 (2014). You can stay overnight and sleep on the summit in the Nyiragongo Crater Cabanes with a view over the largest lava lake in the world.
- Rwenzori Mountain Trek Permit: US$232 (multiday trek) (2014). Different treks are possible (4-5-6 days)
Transportation to/from the park is quite expensive and not included in the permits.
- Climb Nyiragongo Volcano — This volcano, famous for its lava lake, is a technically easy climb from the direction of Goma. A trip to the top should take less than 6 hours, and most climbers spend the night at the top. This also makes it possible to see the boiling lava by night, when it appears to be even brighter. The shortest Nyiragongo Hike in Virunga National Park is 2 days and one day is always climbing and the second day is coming back.
- Visit the Mountain Gorillas — The mountain gorillas are located in the Mikeno Sector, about a two and half our drive from Goma. They can also be approached from Bunagana (border of Uganda). The permit is US$465, so slightly cheaper than in Uganda or Rwanda. The visits are also a bit more authentic and in smaller groups. There are several operators who can organise this, but all book via the ICCN (Congolese Wildlife Authority) sales office in Goma. You can also book directly with ICCN ([email protected]). They can also organise transport.
- Rwenzori Mountain Trek — The Rwenzori Mountains are a snow-capped mountain range in the north of Virunga National Park on the border with Uganda. The highest peak in the range lies on the border and can be climbed from both countries. The trek to the glacier can be made in a 4-5 or 6-day trek. In order to start the trek visitors will need to travel to Beni by airplane (either from Goma or Entebbe).
- Visit the Tongo Chimps — Virunga National Park has a habituated chimpanzee group in the picturesque hills of Tongo, in the southern sector of Virunga National Park, west of the park headquarters of Rumangabo. Tongo is a unique forest island and home to a small population of chimpanzees. The forest lies on one of the lava flows from Nyamulagira Volcano and is estimated to be 300 years old. NB Tongo is not open for visitors because of safety issues; please check the Virunga National Park Tourism Website for current information on the chimpanzee treks.
- [formerly dead link] Mikeno Lodge. The only high-end option within the park. The lodge is situated in the forest of Rumangabo in the southern sector of the park, 1 hour north of Goma. 5 minutes walk from the lodge the Senkwekwe gorilla center is located where guests can see the only 4 captive mountain gorillas in the world, 2 of which were the baby orphans rescued after their mothers were killed in the 2007 gorilla massacre. The lodge is owned and operated by the Park, assuring that all profits from the lodge are reinvested in conservation efforts. For bookings and reservations contact the Virunga National Park sales office: [email protected] or +243991715401 (rates: US$200 p.p.p.n. sharing full board (2011 price))
- Bukima Patrol Post[dead link]— An old research camp transformed into a cosy and basic tented camp at the foot of Mikeno Mountain where the hikes to the gorillas start. It is a cheaper option to spend the night close to the gorillas, but offers all essentials, toilet, shower, BBQ area, drinks for sale etc. The views are amazing day and night (when the glowing Nyiragongo volcano can clearly be seen. For bookings and reservations contact the Virunga National Park sales office: [email protected] or +243991715401 or book directly through the Virunga National Park Tourism Website.  (rates: US$40 p.p.p.n. half board)
- Nyiragongo Crater Cabanes— small cabanas built and managed by the park at the edge of the most active volcano of Africa. An overnight in the cabanas is included in the permit fee for visiting the volcano and checking out the amazing lava lake! For bookings and reservations contact the Virunga National Park sales office: [email protected] or +243991715401 or book directly through the Virunga National Park Tourism Website. 
Bukima Patrol Post The camp (see above) also offers secure self camping options for travellers on a budget, you can pitch your own tent on the camp's grounds and use its facilities for only US$15 pppn.
Other campsites at Jomba (another gorilla site) and Tongo are expected, but not yet active/safe.
Virunga National Park is in a region that is often troubled by unrest. At least 12 rangers were murdered in 2017 and 2018, and the park has been closed since a ranger was killed and two tourists were taken hostage in May 2018. The park goes through periods of increased unrest and periods of relative safety.
The management of Virunga National Park emphasizes that all visitors need to be aware of current security issues at the time of their visit. You can check this site for the latest news on this region, as well as detailed information on the park's activities outside tourism.
Virunga National Park strongly advises visitors against the use of their own transport. Escorted transport can be arranged through the National Park or via tour operators. More information about this can be found on Virunga National Park's tourism website, and Escorts for people using their own vehicles can be arranged by Virunga National Park Rangers (contact [email protected]). All visitors using the park's transportation are automatically escorted by their rangers.