The guardians of Virunga
The oldest National Park in Africa is home to over 1,100 species, including the mountain gorilla. After years of armed conflict, it has been reopened to tourism.
Maisha is one of just over 800 mountain gorillas surviving in the world. She has the good fortune to live in the Senkwekwe Centre in Virunga National Park, and to have André Bauma as her “adoptive mother”. Maisha doesn’t know it, but she appeared in the Oscars as one of the stars of the documentary film Virunga, aired on Netflix and nominated in the category of Best Documentary Feature in 2015. The film wasn’t the winner, but the publicity helped put Virunga National Park on the map. Despite its 7,800 square kilometres and its rich and varied landscapes, it is one of the least visited parks in Africa.
The local communities regard the gorilla as part of their own families. Following a killing of gorillas in 2007, the local communities turned out to help bury the bodies.
Virunga Park is in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and for years was the victim of armed conflicts in the region. Today, thanks to its rangers, the park is relatively safe to visit and has reopened its doors to visitors. 2015 set a new all time record for it in terms of number of visitors. The accommodation centres inside the park are operating again, and the animals have returned to their old homes: the hippos to Lake Edward, the mountain gorillas to the slopes of the Mikeno volcano, and the elephants, buffaloes and antilopes to the plains of Rwindi.
Poachers kill the parents so as to capture and sell the baby gorillas on the black market. That was how Maisha and the gorillas in the Senkwekwe Centre were orphaned
The park was founded in 1925 by King Albert 1 of Belgium and named after him. In 1969, it was renamed Virunga National Park, and ten years later UNESCO designated it a World Heritage Site for “the unmatched diversity of its habitats”. It has marshes, forests, steppes, plains, savannah and even volcanoes – the Nymulagira is believed to be the most active volcano in Africa, with over 40 eruptions recorded since 1800, the most recent of which was in November 2011. Nyiragongo is another well known volcano. Only those who reach its 3,470 metres summit can see the world’s largest lava lake.
Virunga National Park has multiple ecosystems. 2,000 species of plants have been identified
There is even also snow here. The snow-capped mountains of Rwenzori, known as the mountains of the Moon, lie on the frontier with Uganda. Their 5,000 plus metre peaks are covered permanently in white. But it is the fauna of Virunga that makes it special. The kings of the jungle in this case are the mountain gorillas. The species is in danger of extinction and 25% of the surviving population of mountain gorillas are in Virunga National Park.
They live alongside two other members of the family of great apes: the chimpanzee and the western lowland gorilla, as well as over 20,000 hippopotamuses, forest and savannah elephants, lions, buffalo, phacochoerus (warthogs), antilopes and some 700 species of birds. And also the okapi, sometimes regarded as a living fossil. With such diversity, it is not surprising that Julie Williams, Director of Tourism in the National Park, believes that Virunga “will soon be the top tourist destination in Africa”. See you soon, Maisha.