Holidays

Virunga National Park & Mount Nyiragongo Volcano in DRC

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Virunga is home to half of all species on the African continent including elephants, lions, hippos, chimpanzees, okapi and 200 of the world’s remaining 800 mountain gorillas which are a verified endangered species. Due to the park’s alignment along the seismically active Albertine Rift it encompasses a variety ofhabitats such as lava plains, tropical forests, marshes, savannahs, glaciers,mountain snowfields and two active volcanoes, one of which (Nyiragongo) has theworld’s leading open air lava lake.

Virunga National Park is a national park in the Albertine Rift Valley in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was created in 1925 and isamong the first protected areas in Africa. In altitude, it ranges from 680 m(2,230 ft) in the Semliki River valley to 5,109 m (16,762 ft) in the RwenzoriMountains. From north to south it extends about 300 km (190 mi), largely alongthe international borders with Uganda and Rwanda in the east.

It covers an area of 8,090 km2 (3,120 sq mi) and is listed in the List of World Heritage in Danger since 1994. Two active volcanoes are located in the park, Mount Nyiragongo and Nyamuragira, they significantly shaped the national park’s diverse habitats and wildlife. More than 3,000 faunal and floral species were recorded, of which more than 300 are endemic to the Albertine Rift including eastern gorilla and golden monkey.

However, despite its beauty, the park suffers from an abundance of natural resources such as rubber, diamonds, copper, gold, tin, coltan and animals that can be killed for ivory and bush meat. This has led to extensive resource exploitation by poachers, illegal charcoal harvesters and members of the rebel militias.These groups have frequently hunted the park’s animals for bush meat, cut downits trees and built bases within its borders disturbing the wildlife and theforests’ recovery.

 

Why Visit Virunga National Park

    Track mountain gorillas in the heart of Africa.

    Follow chimpanzees through the forests (when in range!).

    Spend a night on Nyiragongo Volcano and watch the world’s largest lava lake at night.

    Climb the Rwenzori Mountains – Mountains of the Moon – home to Africa’s largest glaciers.

    Visit Senkwekwe – the only orphan mountain gorilla sanctuary in the world.

History

In the early1920s, several proponents of the European conservation movement championed the idea of creating a protected area in northeastern Belgian Congo, among them Victor van Straelen, Jean Massart and Jean-Marie Derscheid. When Albert National Park was established in April 1925 as Africa’s first national park, itwas conceived as a science-oriented nature reserve with the aim of studying andpreserving wildlife and so-called ‘primitive’ hunter-gatherer African Pygmies.

The protected area was extended in 1929 by Virunga National Park, which encompassed the Virunga Mountains, parts of the Rutshuru Territory and the plains south of Lake Edward. Its initial size of 2,920.98 km2 (1,127.80 sq mi) was enlargedstep by step in subsequent years. Indigenous people, foremost Hutus and Tutsis lost their traditional land rights in this process, and were evicted from the protected area.

In 1934, the Institut des Parcs Nationaux du Congo Belge was founded as the governing body for national parks in the Belgian Congo. Between the early 1930s and 1961,several expeditions to Albert National Park were carried out by Belgian scientists, the second headed by Gaston-François de Witte. They studied and collected zoological specimens of wildlife for the Musée Royal d’HistoireNaturelle de Belgique; explored the ethnic groups in this area; studied volcanic activity, and fossils.

How to Take This Trip

Getting There:

Most visitors fly into Kigali, Rwanda, and drive three to four hours to the Congolese border. You can arrange a tourist visa and a pickup at the border beforehand through Virunga.

Outfitters:

For U.S. $100 you can rent a backpack stuffed with a sleeping bag, blanket, fleece jacket, and overcoat. Make sure to bring extra socks.

Food and Drink:

A simple lunch and dinner are provided the first day, and breakfast is served the next morning. Bring extra snacks and powdered Gatorade to stay hydrated.

Where to Stay:

Spend the night before or after at the well-appointed Mikeno Lodge bungalows at Virunga headquarters. For a taste of Goma, Lac Kivu Lodge offers a beautiful lakeside restaurant and high-quality service.

When to go:

January to February and then end of May through to October are drier times, with heavier rains in November and March and April. That said, this is a rainforest region with its own micro-climate so expect the unexpected!

Geography

Virunga National Park is located in the Congo − Nile watershed area. Its northern sector encompasses part of the Semliki River basin, as well as savanna and montane forest of the Albertine Rift. In altitude, this sector ranges from 680m (2,230 ft) in the Puemba River valley to the highest peak of Mount Stanley at5,109 m (16,762 ft) within 30 km (19 mi). The national park’s central sector encompasses about two third of Lake Edward up to the international border with Uganda in the east.

The southern sector stretches to the shores of Lake Kivu and encompasses Nyamulagira, Nyiragongo and Mikeno volcanoes with montane forests on their slopes. The northern sector of Virunga National Park is contiguous with Uganda’s Semuliki and Rwenzori Mountains National Parks, and the central sector with Queen Elizabeth National Park. The southern sector borders Ruanda’s Volcanoes National Park.

Biodiversity

Flora

VirungaNational Park’s flora encompasses 2,077 plant species, including 264 treespecies and 230 plants that are endemic to the Albertine Rift. The plains ofVirunga National Park are dominated by wetlands and grasslands with papyrussedge, jointed flatsedge, common reed, sacaton grasses, ambatch, conkerberry,paperbark thorn and kowai fruit. Remains of dicots such as African caper,Maerua species, wild cucurbits and nightshades were found in dung balls of African elephants that play a significant role for seed dispersal in thegrasslands.

Fauna

Virunga National Park’s faunal species include 196 mammals, 706 bird species, 109reptiles and 65 amphibians as of 2012.

                                                                                    Okapi at Virunga National Park

Mount Nyiragongo Volcano

At night, Mount Nyiragongo boils and glows. It’s one of the world’s largest and most volatile lava lakes. In 2002, a stream of lava burst from the side of thevolcano, swept through where we now stand, and coated Goma in a layer of volcanic rock. Much of the city is still covered by this rubble, and lava has been integrated into everyday life in Goma. It’s built into walls and sold as jewelry—there’s even a United Nations base named for it.

Since the trek launched a few years ago, it has become Virunga’s most popular tourist attraction. Dozens of foreign tour operators have added it to their dockets and more are coming to scout it. In the lastfew years, Virunga, Africa’s oldest national park, began offering treks toNyiragongo’s lava lake, the world’s largest.

Park Challenges

The damage to Virunga began with King Leopold II of Belgium during colonial times. By implementing a campaign of forced labour, Leopold was able to extract a personal fortune from Congo’s natural riches, exploiting the park’s rubber, ivory, diamonds, copper and mahogany which helped to build industrial Belgium.

The rule of Mobutu Sese Seko, also crippled the park by exhausting the nation’s mininginfrastructure extracting precious stones. The mining sector was thenconsequently sold off to foreign corporations in 2001, removing anygovernmental regulation of the extraction of gems and the expansion of mining.

 The Democratic Republic of the Congo has seen conflict for the past 14 years due,mainly, to the influx of refugees from the Rwandan genocide. More than a million Hutu refugees fled into the country, along with some of the perpetratorsof the genocide. Several armed groups implemented poaching, illegal fishing,logging and other extractive activities to fund their operations. Many refugeesstill remain in the DRC as they cannot return to Rwanda, although the majoritydo not live around Virunga.

Armed conflict

 After the Second Congo War was over, confrontations between park personnel and rebelgroups continued; 80 park staff were killed between 1996 and 2003. Severalarmed rebel groups operate in the park, including Democratic Forces for theLiberation of Rwanda and National Congress for the Defence of the People.Latter controlled the Mikeno sector ofVirunga National Park between December 2006 and January 2009. They generate income by levying fees from local people for protecting prohibited activities inside the national park like poaching and clandestine fishing, logging, producing and smuggling charcoal,but also through armed robberies and kidnapping.

Five rangerswere killed in August 2017 near Lake Edward in a militia attack. Five rangersand a driver were killed in April 2018. Since beginning of the armed conflict,armed groups killed 175 park rangers until April 2018. In May 2018, threetourists were kidnapped. The hostages were subsequently released unharmed. The park remains closed to visitors since June 2018. It is unlikely to reopen until 2019.

Oil Exploration and Drilling Threat

Virunga National Park, situated in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has been underthreat for decades. The park was founded in 1925 by Belgium’s King Albert I (National Geographic) but has since seen many periods of conflict and the settlement of refugees. These have both led to the reduction of the forest andits animal populations.

However, this damage to the environment is small compared to the possible future for the park, large multinational companies now want to assess the site for oil drilling. This venture could cause large scale excavation of trees and soil leading to depleted biodiversity. Lake Edward, upon which 20,000 people depend, is the primary site for exploration, threatening thousands of livelihoods.

President Joseph Kabila, the current president, consented to a license granting rights to Block 5, one of five government created concessions in the Albertine Rift that includes Virunga National Park, to SOCO International and the British firm Ophir. SOCO bought out Ophir’s stake in 2012 giving them complete control over oil exploration in Virunga, deciding the park’s fate(National Geographic).

SOCO’s contract allows them access to 1,500 square miles of Virunga National Park (National Geographic), threatening the park with disruptive seismic tests, forest clearing, underground drilling and the laying of vulnerable oil pipelines. Additionally, the extraction of oil from Virunga will cause a large influx of people to the park which will also be detrimental to the environment, although will provide jobs.

The international mining corporation has received floods of criticism from local and international conservationists, WWF, human rights groups and the British government. UNESCO who listed Virunga National Park as a World Heritage Site in1979 has stated that oil exploration in the park violates the DemocraticRepublic of the Congo’s commitments to the World Heritage Convention and hascalled for the cancellation of all oil permits inside the park.

A park ranger carries orphaned female mountain gorillas Ndeze and Ndakasi at a protected location at Rumungabo in Virunga National Park just north of the eastern Congolese city of Goma, August 17, 2010. REUTERS/Finbarr O’Reilly (DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC CONGO – Tags: ENVIRONMENT ANIMALS IMAGES OF THE DAY)

The areas allocated as oil concessions cover around 85% of Virunga’s land and thehabitats of endangered chimpanzees, hippos and forest elephants (WWF), causingpossible devastation to the forest and these populations. The endangeredmountain gorillas of Virunga live in Mikeno, an area just 20 miles south of SOCO’s land (Telegraph). The disturbance of oil drilling is likely to putpressure on their population due to environmental and noise pollution.Additionally, the workers of the oil plants may begin hunting the gorillas,reducing their fragile numbers even further.

SOCO has therefore stated that they will not drill for oil inside Virunga National Park unless UNESCO and the DRC government agree that such activities are not incompatible with its World Heritage status. This shows however that SOCO is open to drilling for oil if the park’s World Heritage status is removed or adapted; oil exploration may therefore occur in the future, posing the same threats to the park.

WWF has drawn parallels between oil producing Virunga and Nigeria’s Delta region in which oil is also produced. Violence levels have soared in this area and poverty has doubled since oil was discovered 50 years ago.

                                                                       Effects of Oil Spill at Niger Delta area in Nigeria

This picture depicts an oil spill from an abandoned Shell Petroleum oil well in the Niger Delta. The well was closed in 1977 but frequently leaks; in 2004 it released an oil spill of over 20,000 barrels of crude oil (Telegraph). Oil spills in the Niger Delta over the past five decades will cost $1 billion to rectify and a UN report has found that it could take up to 30 years to clean up (Telegraph). This could be the future for Virunga if oil exploration and drilling goes ahead.

The World Heritage Site status of the park is the only restriction preventing SOCO from destroying the fragile and unique ecosystem of Virunga. If this status is removed or changed, SOCO will not hesitate to extract any oil that is found despite heavy international outrage.

VIRUNGA NATIONAL PARK – D