Virunga National Park is one of the most biologically diverse protected areas on the earth. The park lies on the eastern border of the Democratic Republic of Congo covering a geographical size of about 7800 sqkms bordering Volcanoes National Park, Uganda’s Rwenzori Mountains and Queen Elizabeth National Parks.
The park was formed in 1925 by King Albert I of Belgium as the initial national park on the continent of Africa and is managed by the Congolese National Park Authorities. It was initiated mainly to protect the mountain gorillas living in the forests of the Virunga Mountains controlled by the Belgian Congo, but later stretched north to include the Rwindi Plains, Lake Edward and the Rwenzori Mountains in the far north.
In the initial 35 years, the margin of the park took shape, poaching was kept to a bottom, and sustainable tourism prospered due to the work of a large body of hand-picked Congolese rangers and dedicated wardens. Land compensation 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.
When the Belgians established Congo independence in 1960 the new state deteriorated rapidly, and so did the park. It was simply in 1969 when President Mobutu opened to take a personal interest in conservation, that the park was revived. In the way of Mobutu’s Africanisation battle, it was renamed Virunga National Park, and the first Congolese Wildlife Authority was established. 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 destination for tourists, receiving on average 6500 visitors a 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 and as well the park suffered terribly. Poaching exhausted Virunga’s large mammal populations, infrastructure was destroyed, and many rangers were killed.
The Congolese Wildlife Authority gradually lost mechanism of Virunga and UNESCO reformed the World Heritage Site status to “endangered. In 2013 the World Wildlife Fund raised concerns about plans by the UK based Soco International to carry out exploration for oil in the park. Presently more than 80% of Virunga National Park has been assigned as oil concessions. Soco International’s own environmental impact assessment reports admit that oil exploration is likely to cause pollution, irreparably damage habitats and bring poaching to the park.
The World Wildlife Fund has launched a campaign to petition Soco to refrain exploring the world heritage area for oil, and thereby avoid these outcomes. As of August 30, 2014, SOCO demobilized its operations in the DRC.World Wildlife Fund executives now acknowledge that the battle over Virunga is hardly over. SOCO has yet to surrender its operating permits or commit to an unrestricted withdrawal. The park is known for its remarkable biodiversity, comprising more bird, mammal and reptile species than any protected area on the continent of Africa.
Although mountain gorillas are now tremendously infrequent and listed as one of the most critically threatened species, effective conservation work has helped to secure the remaining populations. Their populations actually increased during the years of political disturbance 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 showed that the conservation efforts of Virunga have been very effective regarding the gorilla population. Savanna and forest elephants as well as chimpanzees and low land gorillas can still be found in Virunga, along with okapi, giraffes, buffaloes and many endemic birds. The neighboring Mount Hoyo area was accomplished with the park and is home to a population of Bambuti pygmy people, caves and waterfalls.
Covering an area of 7800 square kilometres, diverse homes such as swamps, steppes, snowfields, lava plains, moors, and savannahs can be found here. Africa’s two highest lively volcanoes are also part of the Virunga National Park. Populations include mountain gorillas and hippopotamuses, as well as birds that fly in from Siberia during the twilight months. Other animals that are seen in the park are elephants, chimpanzees, giraffes, and buffaloes. In 1979, due to the failure in population of its main residents, the gorillas and hippos, UNESCO has categorized Virunga National Park as a World Heritage Site. Conservation work to defend the remaining populations of these critically threatened species has since been done and is still continuing despite the current complications brought about by the civil war.