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Virunga National Park is Africa’s oldest park established in 1925 as Albert National Park mainly to protect and conserve mountain gorillas when its borders were marked, under Belgian rule to promote sustainable tourism development. The park was later after independence in 1969 renamed Virunga national park to signify the chain of 8 volcanic mountains including the active Mount Nyiragongo and Mount Nyamuragira.

The park was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1979 and protected under the United Nations Ramsar wetland convention.  No wonder why Virunga is today’s popular destination for many Africa safari goers seeking remote and untouched jungle experience.

Despite being a global hot spot for biodiversity conservation, parts of Virunga has for long been under siege due to political tensions and rebel activities. The park’s conservation staff have been dying as well as poaching, habitat loss due to encroachment greatly disrupted tourism and conservation.

Attempts to solve poaching and encroachment as challenges to tourism development had been dealt with earlier by the Belgian government. When the ICCN took over management, Virunga National Park started to receive few visitors for gorilla trekking safaris.

However, challenges to conservation and tourism became more apparent, the political system of president Mubutu lost control and civil wars broke out intensifying poaching and encroachment. This raised concerns from conservationists and the Congolese wildlife authority picked received financial and technical support from major conservation organizations and European Union protect the park’s wildlife.

It’s of recent in 2012 when the park rangers regained full control of the park and it’s now a safe tourism destination especially gorilla trekking safaris as well as birding, nature walks, volcano climbing and game drive safaris.

The park has also attracted foreign and local Investments in infrastructure roads, electricity generation, ranger monitoring stations and tourist centers at Rumangabo, Mikeno including lodges and camps has made the park more popularly and accessible for gorilla trekking.

Quick Timeline

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.

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.

In 1994, the park was labeled unsafe site and was almost no more in terms of tourism.

In August 2008, Emmanuel de Merode was appointed Director and Chief Warden for the park, commanding a ranger force of 680 men.

Historical Information You Need to Know

The history of any protected area is deeply affected by the country in 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 political figures, conservationists, park rangers and wardens, the park not only has survived, but is currently experiencing a dramatic renewal.

The Virunga National Park is Africa’s oldest national park, established in 1925, with a size of over 7800 Square Kilometres. The park was founded in 1925 by King Albert I of Belgium and originally known 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. Because of its unique features, it was classified as a World Heritage Site in 1979, has become known for its mountain gorillas.

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 twenty-five 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, the most recent of Congo’s conflicts, centered exactly on the park, with rebel forces occupying the park headquarters and evicting the park’s staff. By the end of 2008 it looked to everyone as though Virunga was finished.

The political situation in the DRC has changed exponentially 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. Virunga’s management is efficient and transparent, and effort are being undertaken to care for the rangers who have suffered through the years and continue to die at the hands of militia groups.

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, staff, and the outside world who believe in the value of saving Virunga National Park and its wildlife.