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 Bwindi Plains, Lake Edward, and the Rwenzori Mountains.
Virunga National park covers an area of 7,800 square kilometers – stretching from Virunga Mountains in the south to the Rwenzori Mountains in the South. Formerly named Albert National Park, 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.
Virunga National Park is unique with its chain of volcanoes and rich diversity of habitats. Its range contains an amalgamation of steppes, savanna, marshland, low altitude and afro-montane forest belts to unique afro alpine vegetation and permanent glaciers and snow on Mount Rwenzori
The wide diversity of habitats produces exceptional biodiversity, notably endemic species and rare globally endangered species like the Mountain Gorilla
For much of its long history, though, Virunga National Park has been severely threatened by armed conflict. The dedication of the park’s rangers and wardens, Virunga National Park managed to survive. Conservationists, philanthropists, and private donors have played a vital role in Virunga’s survival.
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.
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.