How big is Virunga national park?
How big is Virunga national park? Yes, Virunga national park covers a total area of 7,769 sq. km. Virunga national park stretches to Puemba river valley, lake Edward, Semiliki river basin, Rwenzori mountains, Lake Kivu and encompasses Mikeno, Nyamuragira, and Nyiragongo. Virunga nationals park also extends to the international borders of Uganda and Rwanda where it borders volcanoes national park and Mgahinga national park all protecting endangered mountain gorillas.
The 7,769 sq. km comprises different flora and these include 2,077 plant species of which 264 species of trees and 230 plant species are endemic to the Albertine region. Virunga national park has montane forests, riverine forests, subalpine, and tropical rainforests. It’s in these different vegetation covers that animals have found their home and these include 20 primate species, 196 mammals, 706 bird species, and 65 amphibians.
Virunga national park was initially 2920.98 sq km but the area kept on expanding to the nearby areas such as the Virunga mountains, plains south of Lake Edward, Lake Kivu, Semiliki national park, and the parts of the Rutshuru territory. Some of the people that were living in the nearby areas lost their traditional land rights and were evicted.
Attractions in Virunga national park
Primates: Primates are the famous attractions in Virunga national park. There are a lot of primates that have found themselves a home in the thick forests of this park. The most famous primates are the mountain gorillas which are found nowhere else in DR Congo but in this park. Some of the mountain gorillas have been habituated for tourism purposes and the park has 8 fully habituated gorilla families.
The other common primates in Virunga national park are chimpanzees. Not so many have found their home in this park but the few that are here have been habituated and there is one habituated family in the southern sector of the park. The other primates include red-tailed monkeys, olive baboons, dent’s mona monkey, mantled guereza, grey-checked mangabeys, De Brazza’s monkey, mantled guereza, hamlyn’s monkey, and golden monkeys among others.
Mammals: No game drives in Virunga national park despite the huge number of different mammals that live in this park. The national park is home to over 218 mammal species and most of these are seen during the nature walk, birding, hiking, or trekking activities. Mammals in Virunga national park include African buffalo, African bush elephants, okapi, hippos, duikers, giant forest hog, aardvark, bushbucks, topi, waterbuck, warthog, lions, leopards, and mongoose to mention but a few.
Mountains: Virunga volcanoes are some of the attractions in Virunga national park. The area hosts mountains such as Mount Mikeno, Mount Nyiragongo, and mount Nyamuragira. These mountains are located near each other and which one to hike depends on your choice. Mount Nyiragongo is the most hike hiked volcano in Virunga national park reason being it’s the most active volcano in the world. Mountain Nyiragongo last erupted in May 2021 while mountain Nyamuragira last erupted in November 2011.
Activities in Virunga national park
Primate trekking: Primate trekking in Virunga national park is done among the chimpanzees and mountain gorillas. There are over 8 fully habituated gorilla families and 1 chimpanzee habituated family. To trek any of the gorilla groups in Virunga national park, you need to have a valid trekking permit which can be got from the Virunga national park offices or any trusted local tour operator like Africa Adventure Vacations. The trekking activities can be done at any time of the year and to be part of them you must have 15 years and above.
The primate trekking activity starts with the briefing at Bukima park offices where the park wardens do teach the trekkers about the rules and regulations of the trekking activity and later grouping is done. Armed ranger guides lead the trekkers into the jungle and they start on the search for these primates. Primate trekking activities in Virunga national park take 2-5 hours of searching apes using different trekking trials and the moment chimpanzees or mountain gorillas are located, trekkers are given 1 hour to be around these apes, watch them do daily activities, take photos and learn about their behaviors.
Birding: With over 706 bird species so far recorded in Virunga national park, birding is another activity that is done in Virunga national park. Birding activities in Virunga national park are guided by the armed range guides that protect the birders from dangerous wild animals at the same time taking them to the best birding spots. Some of the birds in Virunga national park are endemic to the Albertine region such as strange weaver, handsome spurfowl, regal sunbird, Rwenzori double collared sunbird, stripe-breasted tit, red-faced woodland warbler, blue-headed sunbird, Rwenzori turaco, Rwenzori batis, red-throated alethe, mountain masked apalis, and shelley’s crimsonwing among others.
Other bird species in Virunga include alpine swift, African thrush, barred long-tailed cuckoo, olive thrush, variable sunbird, African olive pigeon, yellow white-eye, olive long-tailed cuckoo, rufous thrush, African goshawk, brown-necked parrot, green sandpiper, speckled mousebird, streaky seedeater, bronze mannikin, baglafecht weaver, black bishop, black-faced rufous warbler, yellow-rumped tinkerbird, black-billed turaco, tambourine dove, wahlberg’s eagle, harrier hawk, and Angolan swallow among others.
Hiking: Hiking is among the most done activities in Virunga national park. The hiking activities are done on mountains such as Nyiragongo, Mikeno, and Nyamuragira which are both located in the park. The most hiked volcano is Nyiragongo in Virunga national park and it can be hiked at any time of the year. Nyiragongo and Nyamuragira are the most active volcanoes in Africa.
Hiking in Virunga national park starts with a briefing at Bukima patrol station where the hikers first go through a briefing from the park wardens. Later armed ranger guides lead them through the easiest hiking trails passing through steep slopes and rugged terrain. Hiking activities do expose the hikers to animals such as buffaloes, aardvark, duikers, giant forest hogs, elephants, monkeys, giant forest hogs, lions, leopards, topis, olive baboons among others.
The hiking activities have different points where hikers stop for relaxation and take water as well as food. Hiking takes 5-6 hours to get to the summit and as soon as you reach the summit, you get to see the lava lakes, surrounding areas like the Virunga volcanoes, Rwenzori Mountain, Goma city, Virunga national park, lake Kivu, and plantations. The night is spent at the summit shelters and descending is always done the next day.
When to visit Virunga national park
Virunga national park can be visited at any time of the year but there are certain months that are better than the rest. The drier months are the most appropriate to visit Virunga national park and they occur from June to September and December to February. During the dry months, there is little or no rainfall in Virunga national park which leaves the trekking/hiking trails less muddy, the vegetation is short with clear views of the park animals and the roads leading to the park are passable.
Virunga national park can still be visited in the rainy season of March to May and October to November to enjoy discounts on accommodation facilities and some of the park activities like gorilla trekking. Travelers, however, need to know that in the rainy season there is plenty of rainfall that makes the trekking/hiking trails muddy and slippery, vegetation is thick giving unclear views of the park animals and the roads leading to the park are impassable.
Accommodation in Virunga national park
Lodges in Virunga national park are located in the different areas inside and around the park offering different levels of service and pricing. The accommodation facilities do range from budget to mid-range to luxury options and where to stay does depend on your budget. Some of these include Lulimbi Tented Camp, Nyiragongo Volcano Summit Shelters, Bukima Tented Camp, Mikeno Lodge, Tchegera Island, Kibumba Tented Camp, and much more.