The park is Africa’s oldest national park, established in 1925, with a size of over 7800 Square Kilometres. Because of its features, it was classified as a World Heritage Site in 1979, has become known for its mountain gorillas. The national park covers the western shores of Lake Edward, known for its hippopotami (depleted by more than 95 percent in 2006) while elsewhere, marshland, grassland plateau and plains dominate the park.
Along the borders of Uganda and Rwanda lies the 300km running forest called the Virunga National Park. This park covers 7900sq km and is one of Africa’s most biodiverse conservation areas. The park protects the entire Congolese portion of the Virunga, the Rwenzori Mountains and Lake Edward.
The park is also the richest in terms of avifauna hosting over 706 bird species, and a checklist of 208 mammals. The park protects mountain gorillas and gorilla trekking is now possible in the park. The park also protects Congolese endemics including the eastern lowland gorillas, the bizarre okapi as well as typical savanna dwellers such as lions, elephants and buffaloes.
The Ruwenzori Mountains lie on the Ugandan border and rise to alpine meadows and a glacier, while Nyiragongo and Nyamuragira are both active volcanoes with substantial associated lava plains.
The park was affected by the civil wars in the 1990’s which depleted the lives of wildlife, and most of them escaped, but with the stabilization of the area, more wildlife has influxed the forest because of its vast and unique nature.
The park is managed by the Congolese National Park Authorities, the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) and receives vital funding from the European Union. In August 2008, Emmanuel de Merode was appointed Director and Chief Warden for the park, commanding a ranger force of 680 men.
The Virunga National park was established in 1925 and inscribed as a UN World Heritage Site in 1979. However the park remained largely ungovernable due the several civil wars in Eastern Congo. After long years of neglect, the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICNN) in 2010 resumed several tourist activities in the park. There was construction of a new upmarket lodge and tented camp.
In 1979, the park was declared a Unesco world heritage site because of its bio-diversity which include a variety of Flora and Fauna as well as active volcanoes.
The park has gone through much turbulence since its establishments due to political upheavals in the country. From 1925 when the park was established, the park enjoyed stability with many tourists visiting the park for the first 35 years. However, when the country gained independence from the Belgian colonialists, there was instability which was later subsided by Mobutu, the then president. However, in 1980, Mobutu started losing ground and the park saw a lot of poaching, rebel activities which affected tourism in the park. In 1994, the park was labeled unsafe site and was almost no more in terms of tourism.
The Virunga National Park offers a mountain gorilla tracking experience comparable to that of Uganda and Rwanda. However the cost of the gorilla permits is comparably cheaper with a permit costing only USD400 per permit.
There are six habituated gorilla groups and a total of 30 permits are issued per day. Ten of these gorilla permits apply to the gorilla groups based around Djomba, 40 minutes drive from the Bunagana border post with Uganda and most gorilla tours from Kisoro go to these groups.
From the Bukima, there are 20 gorilla permits available per day. This location is located in a distance of two to three hours drive from Bunagana border. This area can also be visited from Gisenyi (Rwanda) on day trips.
Another key attraction in the area is the Nyirangongo Volcano, one of the only two active volcanoes in the Virunga Region. This volcano last erupted in 2002 and its lava flows devastated Goma in 2002. The lava that flowed is still visible and the ruins of the destroyed towns, gardens are seen.
For those interested in a hike to the nested caldera that contains live lava lake, a hike is possible and the ascent takes four to six hours.