Highlights and Main Attractions of Virunga National Park

Africa’s oldest national park lies close to the heart of the continent, protecting its natural treasures behind dense jungle and at the top of mountainous peaks. It stretches for over 250 miles, encompassing a mind-boggling array of wildlife and habitats, including 700 species of bird and around half of the world’s remaining population of mountain gorillas. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the foremost concentrations of biodiversity on the planet. The massive variations in altitude within the park’s borders – the difference between the park’s highest and lowest points is some 11,000 ft – have created a variety of different habitats and ecological niches for wildlife to occupy. From glaciers and lava flows to forests and savannahs, Virunga’s 3,000 square miles contain a multitude of natural wonders.

The park is comprised of three sectors, each with its own distinct landscape and wildlife. In the north, the towering Rwenzori Mountains reach heights of over 16,000 ft, with permanently snow-capped summits. As one of the primary sources of the Nile River, the Rwenzoris have long been associated with the legendary “Mountains of the Moon”. Further down, the endangered okapi – a curious-looking relative of the giraffe with distinctive zebra-striped legs – roams the valley of the Semliki River. One of Africa’s Great Lakes, Lake Edward, takes up most of Virunga’s middle sector, providing a wellspring of life to birds, fish, elephants, buffalos, warthogs, lions, hippos and topi, one of the fastest antelopes in Africa. Virunga’s southern sector is the most popular with visitors, abutting onto Lake Kivu and its various population centres. Here visitors can find volcanoes, chimpanzees and a number of habituated mountain gorilla groups.

Where is Virunga National Park?

The Battle for Biodiversity

Having been established in 1925, Virunga has had to weather a range of threats to its existence over the decades, from militant rebel groups to international conglomerates seeking access to natural resources. Virunga has survived in large part due to the efforts of those who work to protect it, from park rangers on the ground to its current director, Emmanuel de Merode, who survived an assassination attempt in a remote part of the park in 2014. After the release of the documentary Virunga in the same year, which followed the work of conservation rangers and the attempts by the oil company SOCO International to extract oil from the area, said company have demobilised their operations in the DRC.

Poaching is combatted by a team of rangers and their specially trained “Congohounds” - bloodhounds and springer spaniels – which track down poachers and the goods, like ivory, which they attempt to make off with. Orphaned gorillas are recued and kept safe near the park’s headquarters in Rumangabo, nursed back to health by expert veterinarians in an effort to save the species from extinction. It is also hoped that an ambitious scheme to build a number of hydroelectric plants – providing a much cleaner form of energy than the oil and gas that lie beneath Virunga – will eventually provide affordable power to the people living near the park.

In a place as war-torn as this, there will naturally be those looking to exploit the land in order to survive. But there are enough people both inside and outside Virunga who know that its true value lies not in what’s under the ground, but in the life it supports.

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