Virunga National Park occupies a large area encompassing a variety of habitats. It is situated in north-eastern DR Congo, and is contiguous with Semliki, Rwenzori and Queen Elizabeth National Parks and Mgahinga Gorilla Park (IBAs UG009, UG005, UG007 and UG001 respectively) in Uganda and Volcans National Park in Rwanda (RW002). It extends from the Rwenzori range, south through Lake Edward (the DR Congo part of which is entirely contained within the park) and the chain of volcanoes, just north of the town of Goma, to Lake Kivu. Some of the volcanoes are still active; Nyiragongo, the highest on the DR Congo side of the border, last erupted in 1977. Altitudes vary between 798 m in the lower plains and 3,470 m on the top of the Nyiragongo, to 5,110 m on Margherita Peak (Mount Stanley), Africa’s third-highest mountain, in the Rwenzori range. Rainfall is equally diverse, averaging between 500 mm per year at Lake Edward to more than 3,000 mm on the slopes of the Rwenzori. The variety of altitudes, soils and rainfall produces very diverse habitats, comprising lakes, marshy deltas and peatbogs, grasslands and wooded savanna, lava-plains, transition forest, montane rainforest, bamboo forest and high-altitude areas with Hagenia, Lobelia, Dendroscenecio, Erica and Philippia and, finally, glaciers and snow-fields. A significant portion of the Semliki Forest, shared with Uganda, occurs within the park, where it is known locally as the Watalinga forest. The steep western slopes of Rwenzori, which meet abruptly with the alluvial plain of the Semliki, are one of the wettest areas in the country, with frequent rain even during the ‘dry’ season and an average annual rainfall of more than 3,000 mm. Hot springs occur in the Rwindi plain. The park is known to support a greater biological diversity than any other single protected area in Africa. Agriculture and animal husbandry are the main economic activities of the region, an increasing amount of which occur within park limits. Fishing occurs on Lake Edward; several fisherman’s villages, of which Vitshumbi is the largest, are situated on the lake shores.
See Box and Tables 2 and 3 for key species. Species of interest known to occur include Prionops alberti, Bradypterus graueri and Cryptospiza shelleyi. Other species of global conservation concern that may be expected to occur are Indicator pumilio, Coracina graueri, Malaconotus lagdeni, Chloropeta gracilirostris, Eremomela turneri and Nectarinia rockefelleri. Nectarinia stuhlmanni is only known from the Rwenzori range. Phoenicopterus minor has been observed several times at Lake Edward and has once made an unsuccessful breeding attempt (c.1,000 birds in 1974). In addition, one species of the Eastern DR Congo lowlands EBA and one of the Sudan–Guinea Savanna biome have been recorded (see Tables 2 and 3).
Non-bird biodiversity: In total, 177 mammal species have been identified and it is estimated that the actual number may approach 200, making Virunga National Park one of the richest protected areas for mammals in the world. About half of DR Congo’s mammal species occur in the park which covers about 0.3 % of the country’s surface. The park is renowned for its population of the endangered Gorilla gorilla beringei (CR). Other species include Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii (EN), Cercopithecus l’hoesti rutshuricus (LR/nt), C. hamlyni (LR/nt), Panthera leo (VU), Loxodonta africana (EN), Okapia johnstoni (LR/nt) and Tragelaphus euryceros (LR/nt). The population density of Hippopotamus amphibius used to be among the highest known.
Pressure/threats to key biodiversity
The park was originally established in 1925 as Albert National Park. It was subsequently extended several times, became Virunga National Park in 1969 and was declared a World Heritage Site in 1979. It is managed by ICCN and has benefited from foreign aid and a long tradition of scientific research. The Virungas used to be the main tourist attraction in the country, which contributed greatly to the protection of the area. Since the start of the political turmoil in the region, however, tourism has collapsed. The region suffers from a very high population pressure; the fertile lands of Kivu have always been among the most densely populated areas of the country and this situation has been dramatically aggravated by the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Rwanda. Deforestation and poaching have increased enormously and reached critical levels. The forest in the southern part of the park has been completely cut down for firewood by the refugees. A WWF-project that was, among other things, set up to stimulate the planting of trees, had to be discontinued for security reasons when the refugee camps were established. At the end of 1996, fighting between rebel and government forces had destroyed most of the park’s infrastructure and many of the guards fled and some were killed. The International Gorilla Conservation Programme has continued to operate throughout the troubles and is working to ensure the safe return of park staff and to rebuild the infrastructure so that the park’s protection and the gorilla monitoring programme can be restored. The northern sector of the park, including the Rwenzori, is highly threatened and currently inaccessible due to the presence of rebels including from neighbouring Uganda.