Virunga’s National Park is Africa’s oldest National Park and the continent’s most biologically diverse protected areas. Originally called Parc Albert, it was renamed Virunga in 1969. The last 20 years, the park has endured an almost uninterrupted series of challenges. The Rwandan genocide of 1994 saw over a million refugees settle in the park, placing tremendous pressure on the forest and wildlife. In 2007, members of an illegal charcoal ‘mafia’ murdered a family of mountain gorillas in the hope that by killing off the gorillas there would no longer be a reason to protect the park; 9 of the critically endangered Mountain Gorillas were murdered in that year. Today there is peace in the park and with the increased number of rangers, the forest and its inhabitants are protected; making tourism a safe activity once again.
The park is 3,000 square miles in size and includes savannas, forests, swamps, lava plains, erosion valleys, active volcanoes and the glaciated peaks of the Rwenzori Mountains. Its most prominent wildlife is the Mountain Gorilla; here 25% of the world’s population of this primate live in Virunga National Park. In addition, two other Great Ape species in the park are the Eastern Lowland Grauer’s Gorillas and Chimpanzees. Virunga is the only park in the world that has 3 Great Apes living in its borders. The Okapi , another endangered species lives in the park; the okapi resembles a zebra but is more closely related to the giraffe. The park also has large colonies of hippos, forest and savanna elephants, lions and numerous rare bird species.
Virunga National Park has three distinct sectors. The Northern sector is defined by the Rwenzori Mountains that border Uganda; the summits reach over 5,000 meters. The melted snow from the mountains is one of the primary sources of the Nile River. Here along the Seliki River valley below the mountains is where the Okapis live. The Central sector is defined by Lake Edward, the Ishasha River valley and the Rwindi plains. There are over 50 species of fish in Lake Edward, as well as many bird species. Here on Lake Edward and the surrounding Ishasha River valley are the home to the hippos, at one time the largest population in the world. The Rwindi Plains area are the home to the highest concentrations of elephant, buffalo, warthogs and topi. The Southern sector is home to the Mountain Gorillas; they live on the flanks of the dormant Mikeno Volcano, which is 4,380 Meters at the summit. Most of the southern Virunga sector is covered by dense forest, which is also the habitat for the other primates including the Chimpanzee. Nyiragongo Volcano, a popular climb for visitors, is across the valley, where one gets a spectacular view of the world’s largest lava lake. A little further north is Nyamulagira Volcano, the most active volcanoe in Africa; it has erupted over 40 times since the late 1800’s, the most recent eruption in November 2011.
Protecting the wildlife in Virunga National Park has been a difficult challenge as poaching of the animals is an on-going issue. Of the 3,000 elephants originally in the park, there are only 400 now. The Mountain Gorillas also have been depleted in numbers. Today there are 7 habituated families plus 4 solitary Silverbacks totaling 95 habituated Gorillas. A most unique facility at Virunga is the Senkwekwe Orphan Mountain Gorilla Center. This is the only orphanage in the world that concentrates on the Mountain Gorilla; here orphans suffering a traumatic poaching experience, and injury from a snare or the loss of a mother to a brutal killing, will receive loving care in a large forested enclosure with a night house and veterinarian facilities. There are 4 orphaned gorillas presently in the center; two are from neighbouring Rwanda. The Senkwekwe Orphan Gorilla Center is located at the Virunga Park Headquarters in Rumangabo.
LODGING IN VIRUNGA NATIONAL PARK
Mikeno Lodge has a number of large self-contained bungalows; each placed in the forested area and offering beautiful view of the rift valley and both volcanoes, Nyiragongo and Mikeno. The hotel is equipped with an excellent restaurant and bar; complete with wifi in the common areas.
The lodge is strategically located just next to the Park headquarters; easy access to the Gorilla Tracking and the Volcanoes for hiking. The forested area around the hotel is full of wildlife; birds, as well as blue monkeys, colobus monkeys and baboons frequent the area.
BUKIMA LUXURY TENTED CAMP
The Bukima Luxury Tented Camp is perched on the flanks of Mound Mikeno. The tented camp features self-contained bathrooms; cold showers, hot bucket showers and flush toilets. Electricity is provided by solar panels.
The camp is well situated for both gorilla tracking and hiking the volcanoes. The panoramic views are quite spectacular from the campground.