Virunga National Park
Virunga National Park is in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
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 not only has survived, but is currently experiencing a dramatic renewal. 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. 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 seemed as if 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 at unprecedented levels. Virunga's management is efficient and transparent, and morale among the rangers is at an all time high. Tourism has 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 conveniently located near the center of the three main tourist attractions in the southern sector, north of Goma. 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.
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 permit to see the mountain gorillas is $400 US (2010). That is $100 less than the cost in Uganda and Rwanda
The permit to climb the active Nyiragongo volcano is $200. You can stay overnight and sleep on the summit with a view over the largest lava lake in the world
D.R. Congo is renowned as the African country that never seems to experience peace. If you intend to visit Virunga to track gorillas, you would wiser to book early and go to Rwanda or Uganda. Guerilla fractions hide out in the border region between D.R. Congo and Rwanda, and violence is common. Furthermore the authorities in D.R. Congo are renowned for corruption, and it is not uncommon to be detained by border controls until you pay a "special fee" for your release. If you have to go to Virunga, flying into Goma would the safest way (although more expensive), and it would be desirable to leave soon after your trek (although Goma is a very interesting place to visit).