Virunga National Park
Virunga National Park, the oldest national park on the continent, is also its most biologically diverse. Despite challenges that the park has faced from poachers and refugee settlement in its recent past, today the 3000-square mile park is a tourist mecca and home to 25% of the world’s remaining silverback gorilla population. During the Rwandan genocide of 1994, almost one million refugees sought asylum in the park grounds, putting intense pressure on the wildlife population and stretching the local capacity to accommodate more people. Later, in 2007, a mafia group seeking de-nationalization of the grounds murdered 9 mountain gorillas in the hope that, without the gorillas, the government would see no reason to protect the park. Today, the park is peaceful, thanks to the hard work of park rangers and conservation groups, and is an essential stop on your Rwanda tour.
One example of conservation efforts in the park is the Senkwekwe Orphan Mountain Gorilla Center near the Virunga park Headquarters. This center provides medical care to gorillas that are hurt or have been isolated in a guarded enclosure. Today, four orphaned gorillas live at Senkwekwe. It is important that visitors realize the value of conservation, because many species of animals in the park are highly endangered. Due to many years of poaching, the park’s original elephant population of 3,000 has now become only 400, and only 95 total mountain gorillas remain in the park. By going gorilla tracking in Virungas National Park, you will contribute to conservation efforts that will allow your children and their children to be able to see the wonders of the African wilderness in real life, and not only on TV.
Today, Virungas National Park is unique in the world that it contains all four great apes: orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees, and, on your arrival, humans. The forests, grasslands, lava plains, and wetlands also contain forest elephants, lions, okapi, and hippos, as well as a wide range of fish and birds. The park is divided into three sectors: north, central, and south. The north sector contains the Rwenzori mountains, whose snowmelt feeds into the Nile River; the okapi also lives here in the Seliki River Valley. In the central section, visitor can visit Lake Edward, filled with over 50 kinds of fish and as many and more types of fowl. The Rwindi Plains of this region are home to buffalo, topi, warthogs, and elephants, and you can visit hippos in the Ishasha River Valley. Finally, in the southern region is where visitors can find mountain gorillas and chimpanzees, in the dense forests of the Virungas. In this region also lies the towering Mikeno Volcano, offering a challenging climb to 4380 m above sea level.
Virungas National Park also is home to the Nuiragongo Volcano, a famous hike ending in a view of a bubbling lava pit at the summit crater. Brave the cold mountain winds with hot drinks and a warm fire near your cabin at the top. Afterwards, you can visit Nyamulagira Volcano, the most active volcano on the continent. It has erupted more than 40 times since the late 1800s, most recently in 2011.