Virunga National Park is a World Heritage Site in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DCR) that contains the greatest diversity of habitats of any park in Africa: from steppes, savannas and lava plains, swamps, lowland and montane forests to volcanoes and the unique giant herbs and snowfields of Ruwenzori over 5,000 meters (m) high. Known for its mountain gorillas, it also shelters some 20,000 hippopotamuses and birds from Siberia spend the winter there.
The park is managed by the Congolese National Park Authorities, the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) and receives vital funding from the European Union. The park was established in 1929 as an extension of the Albert National Park, the first park in Africa. In 1996 it became a Ramsar site and was insribed on the World Heritage List in 1979. In 1994, it was put on the World Heritage in Danger List due to vast numbers of war refugees and subsequent massive poaching, deforestation and degradation.
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Size and Location:
The Virunga National Park (formerly Albert National Park) lies from the Virunga Mountains, to the Rwenzori Mountains, in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, bordering Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and Rwenzori Mountains National Park in Uganda. It is 7,800 square kilometres (3,000 sq mi).
Flora and Fauna:
Originally a vast forest refuge for innumerable species, the region was largely deforested during the 20th century. The Park borders several biogeographical zones and covers three major habitat types: open grassland, closed forest and humid montane. Within these it protects a very wide variety of habitats. 1,938 species have been recorded.
The open land habitats grade from steppe to savanna to swamp, the result of low rainfall, soil type, grazing and fire.Forest habitats grade from thickets to dense forests. Montane habitats grade from transitional foothill forest to alpine zones.
Before the civil war some of the largest wild animal concentrations in Africa lived in the grasslands along the rivers of the park. There were some 200 species of mammals in the park, 23 of them threatened. The savannas support elephant in the southern plains, hippopotamus, (essentially decimated by late 1996), buffalo, numerous antelope and Defassa waterbuck , warthog and various monkeys. Leopards are widespread though few and little seen, but lions may have increased in numbers.
Mountain gorillas live on the slopes of the Virungas. Out of a total mountain gorilla population of 630 animals, about 140 were recorded there in 1980 and 279 in 1986. But between 1989 and 2001 their numbers increased from 320 to 355 owing to efficient patrolling. Eastern lowland gorillas Gorilla live on Mount Tshiaberimu northwest of the lake and in the Semliki valley forests, threatened by illegal farmers and tree fellers. Other uncommon animals are an isolated population of 30-40 chimpanzees in the southern lava field forest of Tongo, and in the north, a small relict population of okapi, topi, forest hog and bongo. There is also three species of pangolin aardvark.
The bird population is very diverse with over 800 species, 24 being endemic to the Virungas. The wetlands include herons, ibisis, egrets, bitterns, duck, geese, darters, cormorants, skimmers, shoebills, openbills, ospreys, gulls, francolins, warblers and weavers and there are large numbers of pelicans on the lower Rutshuru river. The papyrus yellow warbler may exist in the far north. Rare birds in the volcanic highlands are Grauer's swamp warbler in highland swamps, and Rockefellers sunbird in bamboo, forest and heath stream thickets; in the Ruwenzori mountain forests, Shelley's crimsonwing and Stuhlmann's doublecollared sunbird in the bamboo and alpine zones. Notable mountain forest birds are the Rwenzori turaco, Musophaga johnstoni and the handsome francolin; also the forest ground thrush and the shoebill.
Lake Edward (Rutanzige) which is shallow, has an impoverished fish fauna, but many cichlid species, and quite a rich invertebrate fauna. Recently crocodiles have returned to the upper Semliki river. The monitor lizard and snakes are common including python, puff adder, blacknecked cobra, and green mamba.
Threats: The Park was placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger in 1994 after civil war in Rwanda and the influx of 1.5 - 2 million refugees into Kivu province. This led to massive uncontrollable poaching and deforestation: 9,000 hippopotamus were killed; fuelwood cut for refugee camps was estimated at 600 metric tons/day, depleting and erasing the lowland forests. Most of the staff were unpaid and lacked means to patrol the 650 kilometer (km) -long boundary. The north and center of the park were successively abandoned; many guards were killed. Protective soldiery also turned to poaching. The fishing village near Lake Edward (Rutanzige) grew to threaten the integrity of the Park. Most of the gorillas living higher up the mountains have survived but tourism ceased. The park has become a threatened island in a sea of subsistence cultivation.In 1996, the World Heritage Committee recognized that major effort would be needed for at least ten years after this tragedy to rehabilitate and restore management of the Park and regain local support for its conservation. The UNHCR and other agencies in charge of refugee camps sited within and on the edges of Virunga were contacted and the government informed of the Committee's wish to help the IUCN and world institutions by providing training and technical assistance to deal with the threats to the park.