The Virunga National Park formerly named Albert National Park lies in the north-east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, on the border with Uganda’s Rwenzori Mountains in the North and Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park in the East. The park includes part of Lake Edward, the Semliki River valley, parts of the Rwindi, Ishasha and Rutshuru valleys south of the lake, the Virunga area within the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and part of the Rwenzori range. Lake Edward belongs to the Nile river system and Lake Kivu to the Congo Basin river system.
The park was established in 1925 as Africa’s first national park and is a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site since 1979. The park is managed by the Congolese National Park Authorities; the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) and its partner the Virunga Foundation, formerly known as the Africa Conservation Fund (UK).
Virunga National Park covering an estimated area of 78,000sq.kms comprises of an exceptional diversity of habitats, ranging from swamps and steppes to the snowfields of Rwenzori at an altitude of over 5,000 m, and from lava plains to the savannahs on the slopes of volcanoes. Mountain gorillas are found in the park, some 20,000 hippopotamuses live in the rivers and birds from Siberia spend the winter there.
Virunga National Park is unique with its active chain of volcanoes and rich diversity of habitats that exceed those of any other African national parks. Its range contains an amalgamation of steppes, savannas and plains, marshlands, low altitude and afro-montane forest belts to unique afro-alpine vegetation and permanent glaciers and snow on Mounts Rwenzori whose peaks culminate in 5000 m height. The property includes the spectacular massifs of Rwenzori and Virunga Mountains containing the two most active volcanoes of Africa. The wide diversity of habitats produces exceptional biodiversity, notably endemic species and rare and globally threatened species such as the mountain gorilla.
Virunga National Park offers the most spectacular montane landscapes in Africa. Mt Rwenzori with its jagged reliefs and snowy summits, their cliffs and steep valleys, and the volcanoes of the Virunga massif covered with an afro-alpine vegetation of tree ferns and Lobelia and their slopes covered by dense forests, are the places of exceptional natural beauty. The volcanoes, which erupt at regular intervals every few years, constitute the dominant land features of the outstanding landscape.
The Park presents several other spectacular panoramas like the eroded valleys in the Sinda and Ishango regions. The Park also contains important concentrations of wildlife, notably elephants, buffalo and Thomas cobs, and the largest concentration of hippopotamuses in Africa, with 20,000 individuals living on the banks of Lake Edward and along the Rwindi, Rutshuru and Semliki Rivers.
Virunga National Park is located in the Centre of the Albertine Rift, of the Great Rift Valley. In the southern part of the Park, tectonic activity due to the extension of the earth’s crust in this region has caused the emergence of the Virunga massif, comprising eight volcanoes, seven of which are located, totally or partially, in the Park.
Among them, are the two most active volcanoes of Africa – Nyamuragira and nearby Nyiragongo – which between them are responsible for two-fifths of the historic volcanic eruptions on the African continent and which are characterized by the extreme fluidity of the alkaline lava. The activity of Nyiragongo is of world importance as a witness to volcanism of a lava lake: the bottom of its crater is in fact filled by a lake of quasi permanent lava that empties periodically with catastrophic consequences for the local communities.
The northern sector of the Park includes about 20% of the massif of Monts Rwenzori – the largest glacial region of Africa and the only true alpine mountain chain of the continent. It borders the Rwenzori Mountains National Park of Uganda, inscribed as World Heritage, with which it shares the ‘Pic Marguerite’, third highest summit of Africa (5,109 m).
Due to the park ‘s variations in altitude, rainfall and nature of the ground, Virunga National Park possesses a very wide diversity of plants and habitats, making it the top African National Park for biological diversity. More than 2,000 premier plant species have been identified, of which 10% are endemic to the Albertine Rift. The afro-montane forests represent about 15% of the vegetation. The Rift Albertine also contains more endemic vertebrate species than any other region of the African continent and the Park possesses numerous examples of them.
The Park contains 218 mammal species, 706 bird species, 109 reptile species and 78 amphibian species. It also serves as refuge to 22 primate species of which three are the great ape – mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei), the eastern plain gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri) and the eastern chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthi), with a third of the world population of mountain gorillas. The savannah zones of the Park contain a diverse population of ungulates and the density of biomass of wildlife is one of the highest on the earth Planet (27.6 ton/km2). Among the ungulates, there are certain rare animals such as the okapi,endemic to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the red forest duiker and endemic to Monts Rwenzori. The Park also comprises important tropical zones essential for the wintering of Palearctic avifauna.
Some of the largest wild animal concentrations in Africa occur along the rivers of the park. Mammals in the savannah of the Rwindi area include: elephant, hippopotamus, buffalo, numerous antelope including kob, defassa waterbuck and topi, warthog, lion and various monkeys. Large numbers of pelicans occur on the lower Rutshuru. In the Semiliki Valley and on the slopes of the Virunga mountains are gorilla, chimpanzee and okapi. In the extreme north are forest hog and bongo. Birds include Nahan’s francolin, forest ground thrush, shoebill and probably papyrus yellow warbler.