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Virunga National Park’s 90 years of highs and lows

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By Staff Writer/Travel News Rwanda 

Virunga National Park is situated in the centre of the Albertine Rift of the Great Rift Valley. Established in 1925, it is Africa’s oldest national park and has also been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979.

Virunga park was founded by King Albert of Belgium and at first it named after him (Albert National Park). One of the main reasons the park was founded was to protect the endangered mountain gorillas and other species under threat in the area. The park covers 7,800 square kilometres and has a diverse range of different habitats to explore. This is how Diane Fossey, a famous zoologist who worked hard to conserve the mountain gorillas in the Virunga Massif, described the park: “In the heart of Central Africa, so high up that you shiver more than you sweat… old volcanoes towering up almost 15,000 feet, and nearly covered with rich, green rainforest – the Virungas.”

This park is extremely important to the local economy but unfortunately it has endured tough times recently. It has constantly been a victim of the country’s political climate and also gone through numerous periods of conflict. Many people sought refuge in the surrounding areas near the park following the awful Rwandan genocide in 1994 and this put even more pressure on the animals and forests of the park.

A family of mountain gorillas, an endangered species, were killed by an illegal charcoal mafia in 2007. This came after years of hard work trying to drive their numbers up, and they were beginning to thrive until this horrible act. Since this incident the park has been trying to improve conservation around the Virunga Massif. Many governing bodies and businesses are working hard to help to protect the wildlife in the park.

The mountain ranges are known for being extremely dedicated and hard working. Help from important politicians, charities and determined conservationists has enabled the park to survive tough times. Tourism is very important to the local people and the park. Local travel business and tour companies all try to be mindful of conservation when running their businesses. Sustainable tourism companies such as Amahoro Tours help do their part for the local area, and a minimum of 30 per cent of the park’s revenues is invested in community development projects.

Tourists flock to the Virunga Massif region because it offers some very unique and unforgettable experiences. You can trek through the habitats of extremely endangered species and view breathtaking scenery such as the Virunga Volcano Range. The park has a total of eight volcanoes — two of them the most active in Africa. It’s a destination that’s a perfect example of sustainable tourism that benefits the local communities and wildlife.

Many people go there to enjoy cultural experiences such as brewing local banana beer, trying local dancing and engaging with the local people. However, perhaps the biggest attraction is the wildlife you can see around the Virunga Massif. Here you can see animals such as elephants, suffaloes, mountain gorillas and over 20,000 hippopotamuses. Hippo numbers have improved in recent years, which is encouraging because they were almost wiped out around a decade ago. The more sustainable tourism there is, the more local awareness of conservation improves.

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