Virunga National Park
Virunga National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, on the border of Uganda and Rwanda. Virunga is Africa’s oldest national park and is also the continent’s most biologically diverse protected area. The park’s 7,800 square kilometers includes forests, savannas, lava plains, swamps, erosion valleys, active volcanoes, and the glaciated peaks of the Rwenzori mountains.
Virunga is home to about a quarter of the world’s critically endangered mountain gorillas. The park’s two other Great Ape species, eastern lowland (Grauer’s) gorillas and chimpanzees, make Virunga the only park in the world to host three taxa of great apes. Another prominent inhabitant of the park is the okapi, an endangered species that resembles a zebra but is more closely related to the giraffe. Large colonies of hippos, forest and savanna elephants, lions, and numerous rare bird species can also be found in the park.
Virunga National Park is comprised of three sectors. The northern sector’s defining feature is the Rwenzori Mountains that border Uganda. At over 5,000 meters, the summits of the Rwenzoris are permanently snow-capped. Snowmelt from the Rwenzoris is one of the primary sources of the Nile River. Okapis can be found living along the Semliki River valley below.
Lake Edward, the Ishasha river valley, and the Rwindi plains are the dominant geographical features that define the park’s central sector. Lake Edward contains over 50 species of fish, as well as numerous bird species. The lake and the adjacent Ishasha river valley are home to the park’s recovering hippo population – once the world’s largest. The park’s highest concentrations of elephant, buffalo, warthogs, and topi are found on the Rwindi plains of the central sector.
Virunga’s southern sector is best known for the mountain gorillas that live on the flanks on the dormant Mikeno volcano. Dense forests cover most of southern Virunga, which also make it ideal habitat for chimpanzees and numerous species of monkey. Another highlight in the south is the active Nyiragongo Volcano, which is home to the largest lava lake in the world.