Virunga National Park

Virunga National Park is one of the three national parks in the Virunga Region. Running along the DRC’s border with Rwanda and Uganda for 300km, lies the 7,900km2 Virunga National park.

Virunga is not only the oldest but also one of Africa’s most biodiversity conservation areas, protecting the entire Congolese portion of the Virunga Volcanoes, Ruwenzori Mountains and Lake Edward. It is Africa’s richest national park in terms of avian diversity, with 706 bird species recorded, with a check list of over 208 mammals including mountain gorillas, Congolese endemics such as the eastern lowland gorilla and bizarre okapi, and typical savannah gwellers such as lion, elephant and buffalo.

The park was established in 1925 and inscribed as a UN World Heritage site in 1979, but remained largely ungovernable due to the ongoing civil war. The long years of neglect ended in 2010, however, when the institute Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature [ICCV] oversaw the resumption of several tourist activities, as well as the construction of a new upmarket lodge and tented camp. Unfortunately, a new bout of military action around goma forced the park to close to tourism in late 2012. It has yet to reopen at the time of writing, though the structures are all in place for tourist visits to resume as and when things settle down.

Virunga National park offers a mountain gorilla tracking experience comparable in quality to Uganda AND Rwanda, but is significantly cheaper at US$400 per permits. Six gorilla groups are habituated, and a total of 30 permits are issued daily. Ten of these permits apply to gorilla group based around Djomba, which is only 40 minutes` drive from Kisoro [assuming the park has reopened to tourists]. Regular updates on the situation are posted on the website.

Gorilla Families in Virunga

Like Uganda and Rwanda, the DR Congo’s Virunga National Park equally features habituated gorilla families where visitors on gorilla safari can track. It is in this park that the rare mountain gorillas thrive especially along the slopes of Mikeno sector which is approximately 2 to 3 hours’ drive off Goma. You can reach this park from Uganda through Bunagana or Rwanda and gorilla permit can be obtained at $400 through the Congolese Wildlife Authority Sales Office in Goma or direct from ICCN. Gorilla treks in Virunga National Park usually start at Bukima Patrol Post and this offers you a chance to trek through one of its habituated groups. The habituated gorilla families in this park include;

Kabirizi family

This gorilla group is composed of about 34 individuals with 2 silverbacks. It thrives within Bukima Sector and it is led by Kabirizi silverback. It derived its name from the former ICCN director who died in a motor accident around the 1990s. Kabirizi silverback was habituated in 1998 and succeeded Ndugutse silverback that died while on a cross fire between the Rwanda rebels and Congo Army in 1997.

Humba group

Humba group thrives within Bukima area just near Goma and it is led by Humba silverback. This group is comprised of 16 members and 2 silverbacks. Humba happens to be a brother to Sekwenkwe who died on 22nd July 2007 to unknown gun men. He broke off from his father ‘Rugendo’ around 1998 however; he kept his dominance till recent. If you are interested in exploring a group that is very calm then consider Humba a must to trek.

Rugendo group

This group is marked by a dark history and it is named after one of the earlier silverbacks known as Rugendo. It featured 18 individuals around 1997 with 2 silverbacks-Rugendo and Humba together with Senkwekwe black back with 8 females, 6 infants, 1 sub-adult female. In 1998, Humba broke off from the group and left Rugendo with about 8 members and this included Rugendo silverback, black back Senkwekwe, 4 mature females and 3 infants.

Mapuwa group

This group comprises of 15 members with 1 silverback and it is found around Jomba just near the border of Bunagana which connects this area with Uganda. It is led by Mapuwa silverback who is also famous for his zeal when it comes to defending his members and annexing other members into his group that led to drastic increase in the number of its members.

Lulengo group

Lulengo family is another significant gorilla group in Virunga National Park and features 6 members and 1 silverback. The group is led by Lulengo and it thrived within Jomba sector to the Uganda border of Bunagana. Lulengo hails from Rugabo group which was the first habituated gorilla group in Mikeno sector. Its name changed from Masekura to Lulengo.

Munyaga group

This group thrives within Bukima area close to Goma and features seven individuals and two silverbacks. This group was the first to be found by rangers in 2008 and was led by Munyaga silverback and Bilali-the female gorilla. Bilali is believed to have joined this family in 2004 straying from Rugendo together with 2 of her babies. Currently, the silverback is known as Mawazo.

Nyakamwe family

This features as one of the newly identified gorilla families in the Virunga National Park. It was habituated almost the same time with Bageni which is the largest family in this park. It is composed of 11 members and led by Nyakamwe silverback.

Bageni family

Bageni group is presently known to be a group with many members. About 26 members make up this family with 2 silverbacks-Kitagenda and Kanamaharagi.

Where to Stay

Deeper into the park, two to three hours` drive from Bunagana, the upmarket Mikeno Lodge lies in the heart of the forest, while the less expensive but beautifully located Bukima Tented camp is the best based for gorilla tracking at Bukima [20 gorilla permits are available daily].

The key attraction here, however, is the hike up Nyiragongo [the volcano responsible for the killer lava flows that devastates Goma in 2002], where the nested caldera contains a spectacular live lava lake. The ascent four to six hours and you can over night in the basic hut on the rim before descending the next day. Up to 16 over night volcano are issued daily, corresponding to the number of beds at the rim, and these cost US$ 200 for foreign adults. Porters are also available.

All accommodation, activites and transport within the park can be booked though the website, which also operates an office in Goma [the Congolese town bordering Rwanda’s Rubavu/Gisenyi on the shores of Lake Kivu].

The park website is also the best place to buy a Congolese Visa, but you must allow at least one week for it to be processed and delivered to your email address. It should be stressed that even if the park reopens, government travel advisories will most likely still warn against all non-essential travel to anywhere in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for some time to come.