The Virunga National Park formerly named Albert National Park, is a 7,800-square-kilometre (3,000 sq. mi) National Park that stretches from the Virunga Mountains in the South, to the Rwenzori Mountains in the North, in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, bordering Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and Rwenzori Mountains National Park and Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda.
The park was established in 1925 as Africa’s first national park and is a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site since 1979. In recent years, poaching and the Congo Civil War have seriously damaged its wildlife population. The park is managed by the Congolese National Park Authorities; the Institute Congolese pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) and its partner the Virunga Foundation, formerly known as the Africa Conservation Fund (UK).
Virunga is able to lay claim to such a wide variety of animals thanks to its equally wide variety of landscapes and ecosystems, with everything from glaciers and lava flows to forest and savannah found within the park’s borders. It is perhaps best known as being one of the last places to see mountain gorillas in the wild. The habituation of a handful of gorilla family groups living in Virunga allows travelers to spend time in close proximity with these great apes, making the DRC a top destination for wildlife-lovers.
The Mountain Gorillas are located in the Mikeno Sector, about a two and half our drive from Goma. They can also be approached from Bunagana (border of Uganda). The permit is $400, so slightly cheaper than in Uganda or Rwanda. The visits are also a bit more authentic and in smaller groups. Treks usually require 1-2 hours of hiking in each direction, depending where the mountain gorillas spent the previous night and the difficulty of the terrain. To safeguard the health of Virunga’s gorillas, visitors will be required to wear surgical masks (provided) when in the presence of gorillas. Time for the gorilla trekking tours is strictly limited to one hour.
Considered one of the world’s seventeen “mega diverse” nations, the Democratic Republic of Congo is home to a cast of characters suitable for any traditional African safari. The continent’s “big five” – elephants, leopards, lions, rhinos and buffalo – can all be found here, as well as the world’s only wild population of bonobos. Years of war and civil unrest have had a huge impact on the country’s wildlife, but there are still places where one can visit to experience a truly wild taste of Africa.
Gorillas are far from the only wildlife experience one can enjoy on a trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo. A huge variety of bird life can be seen filling the skies above Virunga, including pelicans and flamingos that hunt for fish in Lake Edward. The Ishasha River, which drains into the lake, attracts a variety of large land mammals. This makes it a great spot for sightings of tree-climbing lions, wallowing hippos, and herds of elephant and buffalo.
Chimpanzees are currently being habituated close to Virunga’s park headquarters, while the endangered okapi, a cousin of the giraffe, inhabits the valley below the Rwenzori Mountains to the north. All told, there are over 2,000 plant species, 706 bird species, 218 mammal species, 109 reptile species, 78 amphibian species and 22 primate species living within Virunga.