Virunga National Park
The Virunga National Park (French: Parc National des Virunga), formerly named Albert National Park, is a 7800 square km National Park that stretches from the Virunga Mountains in the South, to the Rwenzori Mountains in the North, in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, bordering Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and Rwenzori Mountains National Park and Queen Elisabeth National Park in Uganda. The park was established in 1925 as Africa’s first national park. It was classified as a World Heritage Site in 1979. In recent years the park has become known for its mountain gorillas, although poaching and the Congo Civil War have seriously damaged its wildlife population. The park is managed by the Congolese National Park Authorities, the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) and its partner the Africa Conservation Fund (UK) with whom ICCN signed a 10-year management agreement in February 2011. The park currently receives most of its funding from the European Union.
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 all but destroyed.
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 to over 3000 in 2011 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 has managed to preserve its species diversity and its population of mountain gorillas have more than doubled in numbers since the late 1980s largely because of the dedication of the rangers and staff, despite exceptionally difficult conditions. Over 140 of Virunga’s rangers have lost their lives protecting the park since the beginning of the war in 1996. Virunga National Park is unrivalled in its diversity of landscapes and ecosystems.
The park is known for its exceptional (bio)diversity, containing more bird, mammal and reptile species than any protected area on the African continent. Although mountain gorillas are now extremely rare and listed as one of the most critically endangered species, successful conservation work has helped to secure the remaining populations. Their populations actually increased during the years of political upheaval in the region (1994–2004), and have continued to do so even throughout the difficult period of 2007-2008. The 2010 Mountain Gorilla census has indicated that the conservation efforts of Virunga have been very successful regarding the Gorilla population. Both savanna and forest elephants as well as chimpanzees and low land gorillas can still be found in Virunga, along with Okapi, giraffes, buffaloes and many endemic birds. The neighbouring Mount Hoyo area was managed with the park and is home to a population of Bambuti Pygmy people, caves and waterfalls, but since the civil wars, the park has suffered somewhat. Land invasions and intense poaching have challenged the park authorities to the limit, but most rangers have remained active. Since 1994, about 140 rangers have been killed in the line of duty protecting the park from illegal poaching and land acquisition. Amongst other military activity, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda or FDLR has been using the park as a safe location when they have come under sustained attack, such as Laurent Nkunda‘s offensives against them in April–May 2007. The park was occupied by Nkunda’s forces on 26 October 2008, during the Battle of Goma.