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The Virunga National Park (French: Parc National des Virunga), formerly named Albert National Park, is a 7,800 km2 (3,000 sq mi) National Park that stretches from the Virunga Mountains in the south to the Rwenzori Mountains in the north, in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, bordering Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and Rwenzori Mountains National Park and Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda.

Virunga National Park
IUCN category II (national park)
Bukima Patrol Post.jpg
Bukima Camp in the foothills of Mikeno Mountain, home of the Congolese mountain gorillas
Map showing the location of Virunga National Park
Map showing the location of Virunga National Park
Location Democratic Republic of the Congo
Nearest city Goma
Coordinates 0°55′S 29°10′E / 0.917°S 29.167°E / -0.917; 29.167Coordinates: 0°55′S 29°10′E / 0.917°S 29.167°E / -0.917; 29.167
Area 7,800 km2 (3,000 sq mi)
Established 1925
Governing body Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature
UNESCO World Heritage Site
Criteria Natural: (vii), (viii), (x)
Reference 63
Inscription 1979 (3rd Session)
Endangered 1994–...
Official name Parc national des Virunga
Designated 18 January 1996
Reference no. 787[1]

The park was established in 1925 as Africa's first national park and has been a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site since 1979. In recent years, poaching and the Congo Civil War have seriously damaged its wildlife population. The park is managed by the Congolese National Park Authorities, the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN), and its partner, the Virunga Foundation, formerly known as the Africa Conservation Fund (UK). The current park director, since 2008, is the Belgian Prince Emmanuel de Merode.[2]

The park has been closed to visitors since June 2nd, 2018 following a kidnapping incident close to Goma in May 2018.



The park was created in 1925 by King Albert I of Belgium as the first national park on the continent of Africa. It was founded primarily to protect the mountain gorillas[3] living in the forests of the Virunga Mountains controlled by the Belgian Congo, but later, it expanded north to include the Rwindi plains, Lake Edward, and the Rwenzori Mountains.[4]

In the first 35 years, as the boundary of the park took shape, poaching was kept down, and sustainable tourism thrived.[citation needed] Land remuneration and the use of park resources such as fishing and hunting by the local population became an ongoing problem and attempts were made to solve these issues.[citation needed]

After independence in 1960 the new state deteriorated rapidly, and so did the park. In 1969 President Mobutu Sese Seko began to take a personal interest in conservation, and the park was revived. In the process of Mobutu's Africanization campaign, it was renamed Virunga National Park, and the first Congolese Wildlife Authority was established.[citation needed]

Virunga fared well for the better part of the 1970s. Foreign investment helped to improve the park's infrastructure and training facilities, and the park became a popular tourist destination, with an average 6500 visitors a year. In 1979 UNESCO designated the park as a World Heritage Site.[5]

In the mid-1980s Mobutu began to lose his hold on power and the country began a long slide into chaos. The park suffered terribly. Poaching depleted Virunga's large mammal populations, infrastructure was destroyed, and many rangers were killed. The Congolese Wildlife Authority slowly lost control of Virunga and UNESCO changed its World Heritage Site status to "endangered".[5]

In June 2018 the park closed for the remainder of the year to address security; at least twelve park rangers had been killed in prior months.[6] Park director de Merode in April 2018 told the BBC that the park's roughly 800 rangers were outnumbered by the 1,500 to 2,000 militia in and around the park.[7]

In 2015, the World Wildlife Fund raised concerns about plans by UK-based Soco International to carry out exploration for oil in the park.[8] Currently, more than 80% of Virunga National Park has been allocated as oil concessions.[9]Soco International's own environmental impact assessment reports say that oil exploration is likely to cause pollution, irreparably damage habitats and bring poaching to the park. The World Wildlife Fund launched a campaign to petition[10] Soco to refrain exploring the world heritage area for oil, and thereby avoid these outcomes. As of August 30, 2014, SOCO had demobilized its operations in the DRC.[citation needed] However it has yet to relinquish its operating permits or commit to an unconditional withdrawal.[11]


Virunga National Park is unrivaled in its diversity of landscapes and ecosystems.

Southern Sector Central Sector Northern sector
  • Montane tropical forest (home to the mountain gorilla)
  • Alpine forest (on the higher slopes of the Virunga Massif)
  • Old (and new) lava flows
  • African savanna
  • Marshland
  • Riverine forest
  • Lake shores


The park is known for its exceptional biodiversity, containing more bird, mammal and reptile species than any protected area on the continent of Africa. Although mountain gorillas are now extremely rare and listed as one of the most critically endangered species, successful conservation work has helped to secure the remaining populations. Their populations actually grew during the years of political upheaval in the region (1994–2004), and have continued to do so even throughout the difficult period of 2007-2008. The 2010 mountain gorilla census has indicated that the conservation efforts of Virunga have been very successful. Both savanna and forest elephants, as well as chimpanzees and low land gorillas, can still be found in Virunga, along with okapi, giraffes, African buffalo, and many endemic birds. The neighboring Mount Hoyo (sv) area was managed with the park and is home to a population of Bambuti pygmy people, as well as many caves and waterfalls.[12]

Together with the adjacent Queen Elizabeth National Park, it forms a Lion Conservation Unit.[13] The area is considered a potential lion stronghold in Central Africa, if poaching is curbed and prey species recover.[14]

Human conflictEdit

Since the civil wars, the park has experienced an increase in land invasions and poaching. Since 1994, about 140 rangers have been killed in the line of duty protecting the park.[15] Five rangers were killed in August 2017 near Lake Edward in a single militia attack.[16] Five rangers and a driver were killed in one incident in April 2018.[16] Amongst other military activity, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) used the park as a safe location when they have come under sustained attack, such as Laurent Nkunda's offensives against them in April–May 2007.[17] The park was occupied by Nkunda's forces on 26 October 2008, during the Battle of Goma.[citation needed] As of April 2018, the total number of rangers killed to protect the park is 175.[18]


Over the last three years[when?] the park has seen heavy investment in tourism development, social infrastructure as well as safety. Currently,[when?] over 3,000 tourists a year visit the southern sector of Virunga National Park to admire the gorillas as well as the lava lake of the Nyiragongo Volcano. In March 2015, the Virunga Foundation signed a 25-year agreement to manage the park. The park receives[when?] most of its funding from the European Union and the Howard G Buffett Foundation.[citation needed] A Mai-Mai militia attacked a park facility and killed two park rangers and a Congolese soldier in October 2012. Five of the Mai Mai militiamen died in the attack. Congolese Revolutionary Army (also known as M23) allegedly has a base camp inside the park.

In 2008, Emmanuel de Mérode, a naturalist and member of the Belgian House of Mérode, became the director of the park. He survived an ambush carried out on April 15, 2014 on a road in the park; he was shot four times in the stomach and legs by unknown assailants.[19]

The Beni massacre occurred inside the national park.[20] Other massacres related to animals have taken place. Poachers targeted habituated gorillas since they are more docile than wild ones.[21]

The park has been closed to visitors since an incident on May 11th, 2018 in which a ranger was killed and three western tourists taken hostage. The hostages were subsequently released unharmed but the park remains closed to visitors.[22]

Oil industry threatEdit

Virunga is threatened by UK oil company SOCO, which wishes to undergo oil exploration within the park.[23] Seismic tests were carried out by SOCO, and confirmed the presence of oil.[24] This announcement reignited the debate to the merits of exploring oil in the park.[24] This could involve disruptive seismic testing, forest clearing, and deep underground drilling.[24] This can put at risk hundreds of lesser known fragile species which are found in no other country. Also, if Lake Edwards is drilled, it can have a detrimental impact on the people of the region. 30,000 people benefit economically from fishing in the park. Another 20,000 benefit from commercial activities related to the fishing industry.[25] In response, a joint plea was launched by international environmental and rights groups to the Ugandan government and Republic of Congo to prevent oil drilling in or around Virunga National Park.[24] Regardless, the Ugandan government plans to receive bids on six new oil licenses.[24] To this day, no oil exploration has occurred.[24]

On March 13, 2015, the BBC reported that the Democratic Republic of Congo wanted to redraw the boundaries of Virunga National Park to allow for oil exploration.[26]

Charcoal tradeEdit

Trees are being cut down at a rate of 2.3%. The country lost 14,331 square miles of forest between 2001 and 2010. The primary cause has been the charcoal industry,[27] which is worth almost two billion dollars. Virunga is the only source of charcoal for Rwanda, which passed a law banning the production of charcoal within its border. Trees are cut down, covered in mud, and set on fire in order to make charcoal. There is also a strong military presence near Virunga. Unpaid soldiers have turned to the charcoal trade and other illegal activities in order to support themselves. Many of the gorilla killings are fueled by the charcoal trade.[28] There have been reported executions of gorillas as act of sabotage by people in the charcoal business who want to see the gorillas dead.[29] Many park officials risk their lives to protect the park. However, some are in collaboration with the military and poachers. Poaching is a source of income for many people due to the economic instability in the country. Many of poachers are members of local militias. Most of money goes back to militias, and use the money to buy weapons.[citation needed]

In the hope of blunting the need for charcoal for cooking and heat, two hydroelectric dams have been constructed to provide electricity for factories, cooking, and heating.[30]

In popular mediaEdit

The 2014 documentary Virunga explored the work of conservation rangers and the activities of British oil company SOCO International within the park. It has been screened internationally at film festivals and was released on streaming service Netflix on November 7, 2014.[31][32]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "Parc national des Virunga". Ramsar Sites Information Service. Retrieved 25 April 2018. 
  2. ^ "Interview With Emmanuel de Merode, Director of Virunga National Park – National Geographic Blog". Retrieved 2017-12-21. 
  3. ^ Denis, Armand. "On Safari: The story of my life". New York. Dutton, 1963, p. 76.
  4. ^ "Virunga National Park | Overview, Location, History, & Facts". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2017-12-21. 
  5. ^ a b "Virunga National Park - UNESCO World Heritage List". UNESCO World Heritage Centre. UNESCO. Retrieved 22 January 2016. 
  6. ^ Eli Meixler (June 5, 2018). "Africa's Oldest National Park Will Temporarily Close Amid a Series of Deadly Attacks". 
  7. ^ "DR Congo: British tourists kidnapped in Virunga National Park". BBC. May 17, 2018. 
  8. ^ "'Oil threat' to DR Congo's Virunga National Park". BBC Online. BBC News. 31 July 2013. Retrieved 2 August 2013. 
  9. ^ "Save Virunga". Save Virunga. Retrieved 2014-04-21. 
  10. ^ "Keep Oil Exploration Out of Virunga National Park· Causes". Retrieved 2014-04-21. 
  11. ^ "Oil Dispute Takes a Page From Congo's Bloody Past". 2014-11-15. Retrieved 2014-11-19. 
  13. ^ IUCN Cat Specialist Group (2006). Conservation Strategy for the Lion Panthera leo in Eastern and Southern Africa. IUCN, Pretoria, South Africa.
  14. ^ Treves, A., Plumptre, A. J., Hunter, L. T., & Ziwa, J. (2009). "Identifying a potential lion Panthera leo stronghold in Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda, and Parc National Des Virunga, Democratic Republic of Congo". Oryx. 43 (1): 60–66. 
  15. ^ Gorilla Warfare (Newsweek article)[dead link]
  16. ^ a b Jason Burke (9 April 2018). "Six Virunga park rangers killed in DRC wildlife sanctuary". The Guardian. Retrieved 10 April 2018. 
  17. ^ International Crisis Group, Congo: Bringing Peace to North Kivu, Africa Report No.133, 31 October 2007, p.11
  18. ^ "In memoriam: deadliest attack on Virunga staff in Park's recent history brings total ranger deaths to 175". Virunga. Retrieved 2018-08-17. 
  19. ^ "Belgian Emmanuel de Merode shot in DR Congo ambush". BBC News. 16 April 2014. Retrieved 27 January 2015. 
  20. ^ "Scores 'hacked to death' in machete attack in DR Congo". Retrieved 2017-12-21. 
  21. ^ "Massacre of Congo's gorillas". The Guardian. 2007-09-01. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2017-12-21. 
  22. ^ "Virunga Park Closure Statement" (PDF). 
  23. ^ "What's In A Name? That Which We call A Rebel ..." Retrieved 1 November 2012. 
  24. ^ a b c d e f "NGOs seek oil drilling ban in famed mountain gorilla national park". Mail Online. Retrieved 2016-01-27. 
  25. ^ "Virunga National Park: Intact for nine decades, now more threatened than ever". Retrieved 2016-03-20. 
  26. ^ "DR Congo seeks Virunga park boundary change". 2015-03-13. Retrieved 2015-03-13. 
  27. ^ "Deforestation of Virunga National Park". Deforestation of Virunga National Park. Retrieved 2016-03-19. 
  28. ^ "Congo Gorilla Killings Fueled by Illegal Charcoal Trade". Retrieved 2016-03-19. 
  29. ^ "Who Murdered the Virunga Gorillas? - National Geographic Magazine". Retrieved 2016-03-19. 
  30. ^ Yee, Amy (30 August 2017). "The Power Plants That May Save a Park, and Aid a Country". The New York Times. Retrieved 4 September 2017. 
  31. ^ "Screenings". Virunga (Official Website). Retrieved 20 August 2014. 
  32. ^ Sinha-Roy, Pifa (6 November 2014). "Netflix's 'Virunga' uncovers Congo's fight to protect resources". Reuters. Los Angeles. Retrieved 8 November 2014. 

External linksEdit