Virunga National Park is one of the most biologically diverse protected areas on the planet. Half of all the biodiversity in sub-Saharan Africa can be found in Virunga. The park is also a geologic wonder and contains two of the world’s most active volcanoes. For much of its long history, though, Virunga National Park has been severely threatened by armed conflict. Thanks to the dedication of the park’s rangers and wardens, Virunga has been able to survive. Certain politicians, the European Union, conservationists, philanthropists, and private donors have also played a vital role in Virunga’s survival.
The park was founded in 1925 by King Albert I of Belgium and originally known as Albert National Park. Virunga was the first national park on the continent of Africa. The park was founded primarily to protect the mountain gorillas living in the forests of the Virunga Massif that were controlled by the Belgian Congo. Later, Virunga was expanded north to include the Rwindi Plains, Lake Edward, and the Rwenzori Mountains.
In the first 35 years, 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 ever-increasing problem.
When the Belgians granted Congo independence in 1960, the new state deteriorated rapidly, and so did Virunga. It wasn’t until 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. Institut Congolais pour le Conservation de la Nature or ICCN, is still in charge of Congo’s protected areas to this day.
Virunga fared well for the better part of the 1970s. Foreign investment helped improve the park’s infrastructure and training facilities, and the park became a popular destination for tourists. During this period, Virunga welcomed an average of 6500 visitors per 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. Virunga suffered terribly. Poaching depleted the park’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 1994 Rwandan Genocide, which contributed to the severe destruction of park forests, and the proliferation of armed militias 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 finished.
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.
For more information on Virunga National Park, including frequent updates from park rangers and staff, please visit Virunga National Park’s official website: virunga.org ›