Located 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.
Beginning in 1987 and continuing for two years, the Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS) developed a network of 80 km of trails inside the Tongo forest and worked to locate and habituate the estimated 50 chimpanzees. In 1989, tourism officially opened, providing guests with the only area of habituated chimpanzees for tourism without the use of artificial inducement. Tourism grew until 1992 providing important tourism revenue for park management and benefiting the small rural community of Tongo. From 1992 through 2001, civil unrest put an end to tourism. However, throughout the period of unrest, Virunga National Park rangers continued monitoring the chimpanzees, and thanks to their remarkable efforts the chimpanzees remained unharmed through 2001.
With a return of relative peace and stability to the region, in 2010 FZS was able to re-launch the habituation process in preparation for tourism. In April 2010 the trails were reopened over a period of two months with a team of 35 members of the local community who were trained and equipped by FZS. Habituation began in June 2010, and thanks to the hard work and dedication of the Community Trackers, the chimps were fully habituated to their presence by the end of 2010.
The day begins when Community Trackers leave their camp at 3:00 AM, enter the forest at 4:00 AM and await the first chimp calls. Having heard and located the chimps, they remain with them until 7:00 AM when their precise location is communicated over radio to the Virunga National Park guide. Leading the group of 4-6 tourists is one guide and one ranger. The tourists remain with the chimps for up to one hour.
In addition to Chimp viewing, tourists can visit the Chimpanzee Resource Centre at Tongo, see a presentation on the project and learn of the community’s involvement in protecting the park, as well as the various development projects they are undertaking. Tourists can also hike to the crystal clear waters of Tongo’s rivers and pass by large pits full of poisonous gases, and a graveyard for wildlife.
Lodging options include from high-end Mikeno Lodge at Rumangabo to the Sokomuto basic campsite. A local land-owner and long-time supporter of the park will soon be rehabilitating his lodge which offers stunning views over the Tongo forest and volcanoes.