The Virunga National Park, formerly named Albert National Park, is a 7,800-square-kilometre National Park that stretches from the Virunga Mountains in the south, to the Rwenzori Mountains in the north, in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, bordering Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda and Rwenzori Mountains National Park and Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda.
The park was established in 1925 as Africa’s first national park and is a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site since 1979. In recent years, poaching and the Congo Civil War have seriously damaged its wildlife population.
The park is managed by the Congolese National Park Authorities the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN) and its partner the Virunga Foundation, formerly known as the Africa Conservation Fund (UK).
The current park director since 2008 is the Belgian Prince Emmanuel de Merode.
The park was created in 1925 by King Albert I of Belgium as the first national park on the continent of Africa.
It was founded primarily to protect the mountain gorillas living in the forests of the Virunga Mountains controlled by the Belgian Congo, but later expanded north to include the Rwindi Plains, Lake Edward and the Rwenzori Mountains in the far north.
In the first 35 years, the boundary of the park took shape, poaching was kept to a minimum, and sustainable tourism thrived due to the work of a large body of hand-picked Congolese rangers and dedicated wardens.
Land remuneration 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 granted Congo independence in 1960 the new state deteriorated rapidly, and so did the park.
It was only in 1969 when President Mobutu began to take a personal interest in conservation, that the park was revived. In the process of Mobutu’s Africanization campaign, 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. The park suffered terribly.
Poaching depleted Virunga’s large mammal populations, infrastructure was destroyed, and many rangers were killed. The Congolese Wildlife Authority slowly lost control of Virunga and UNESCO changed the World Heritage Site status to “endangered.”
In 2015, the World Wildlife Fund raised concerns about plans by the UK based Soco International to carry out exploration for oil in the park. Currently more than 80% of Virunga National Park has been allocated 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 relinquish its operating permits or commit to an unconditional withdrawal.
The park is known for its exceptional biodiversity, containing more bird, mammal and reptile species than any protected area on the continent of Africa.
Although mountain gorillas are now extremely rare and listed as one of the most critically endangered species, successful conservation work has helped to secure the remaining populations.
Their populations actually increased during the years of political upheaval 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 indicated that the conservation efforts of Virunga have been very successful regarding the gorilla population.
Both, 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 managed with the park and is home to a population of Bambuti pygmy people, caves and waterfalls.
Since the civil wars, the park has experienced an increase in land invasions and poaching. Since 1994, about 140 rangers have been killed in the line of duty protecting the park.
Amongst other military activity, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) used the park as a safe location when they have come under sustained attack, such as Laurent Nkunda’s offensives against them in April–May 2007.
The park was occupied by Nkunda’s forces on 26 October 2008, during the Battle of Goma.
Over the last three years the park has seen heavy investment in tourism development, social infrastructure as well as safety.
Currently, over 3000 tourists visit the southern sector of Virunga National Park to admire the gorillas as well as the lava lake of the Nyiragongo Volcano every yea. In March 2015, the Virunga Foundation signed a 25-year agreement to manage the park.
The park receives most of its funding from the European Union and the Howard G Buffett Foundation.
A Mai Mai militia attacked a park facility and killed two park rangers and a Congolese soldier in October 2012. Five of the Mai Mai militiamen died in the attack.
Congolese Revolutionary Army (also known as M23) allegedly has a base camp inside the park.
In 2008, Emmanuel de Mérode, a naturalist and member of the Belgian House of Mérode, became the director of the park. He survived an ambush carried out on April 15, 2014 on a road in the park; he was shot four times in the stomach and legs by unknown assailants.
The Beni massacre occurred inside the national park. Other massacares relatted to animals too place. Poachers targeted habituated gorillas since they are more docile than wild ones.
Oil industry threat
Virunga is threatened by the U.K. oil company SOCO, which wishes to undergo oil exploration within the park. Seismic tests were carried out by SOCO, and confirmed the presence of oil. This announcement reignited the debate to the merits of exploring oil in the park.
This could involve disruptive seismic testing, forest clearing, and deep underground drilling. This can put at risk hundreds of lesser known fragile species which are found in no other country.
Also, if Lake Edwards is drilled, it can have a detrimental impact on the people of the region. 30,000 people benefit economically from fishing in the park. Another 20,000 benefit from commercial activities related to the fishing industry.
In response, a joint plea was launched by International environment and right groups to the Ugandan government and Republic of Congo to prevent oil drilling in or around the Virunga National park.
Regardless, the Ugandan government plans to receive bids on six new oil licenses. To this day, no oil exploration has occurred.
On March 13, 2015, BBC reported that the Democratic Republic of Congo wanted to redraw the boundaries of Virunga National Park to allow for oil exploration.
Trees are being cut down at a rate of 2.3%. The country lost 14,331 square miles of forest between 2001 and 2010. The primary cause has been the charcoal industry, which is worth almost two billion dollars.
Virunga is the only source of charcoal for Rwanda, which passed a law banning the production of charcoal within its border. Trees are cut down, covered in mud, and set on fire in order to make charcoal.
There is also a strong military presence near Virunga. Unpaid soldiers have turned to the charcoal trade and other illegal activities in order to support themselves. Many of the gorilla killings are fueled by the charcoal trade.
There have been reported executions of gorillas as act of sabotage by people in the charcoal business who want to see the gorillas to die. Many park officials risk their lives to protect the park.
However, some are in collaboration with the military and poachers. Poaching is a source of income for many people due to the economic instability in the country.
Many of poachers are members of local militias. Most of money goes back to militias, and use the money to buy weapons.
In the hope of blunting the need for charcoal for cooking and heat, two hydroelectric dams have been constructed to provide electricity for factories, cooking, and heating.
In popular media
The 2014 documentary Virunga explored the work of conservation rangers and the activities of British oil company SOCO International within the park.
It has been screened internationally at film festivals and was released on streaming service Netflix on November 7, 2014.