Virunga National Park
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|Virunga National Park|
|Location||Democratic Republic of the Congo|
|Area||8,090 km2 (3,120 sq mi)|
|Governing body||Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature|
|UNESCO World Heritage site|
|Criteria||Natural: (vii), (viii), (x)|
|Inscription||1979 (3rd Session)|
|Official name||Parc National des Virunga|
|Designated||18 January 1996|
Virunga National Park (French: Parc National des Virunga) is a national park in the Albertine Rift Valley in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was created in 1925 and is among the first protected areas in Africa. In altitude, it ranges from 680 m (2,230 ft) in the Semliki River valley to 5,109 m (16,762 ft) in the Rwenzori Mountains. From north to south it extends about 300 km (190 mi), largely along the international borders with Uganda and Rwanda in the east. It covers an area of 8,090 km2 (3,120 sq mi) and is listed in the List of World Heritage in Danger since 1994.
Two active volcanoes are located in the park, Mount Nyiragongo and Nyamuragira. They significantly shaped the diverse habitats and wildlife in the park. More than 3,000 faunal and floral species were recorded, of which more than 300 are endemic to the Albertine Rift including the globally threatened eastern gorilla, golden monkey, golden-naped weaver, Congo bay owl and dwarf crocodile.
In the early 1920s, several proponents of the European conservation movement championed the idea of creating a protected area in northeastern Belgian Congo, among them Victor van Straelen, Jean Massart and Jean-Marie Derscheid. When Albert National Park was established in April 1925 as Africa’s first national park, it was conceived as a science-oriented nature reserve with the aim of studying and preserving wildlife and so-called ‘primitive’ hunter-gatherer African Pygmies. In 1926, Derscheid headed the first Belgian mission to cartograph Albert National Park, which was enlarged to 2,920.98 km2 (1,127.80 sq mi) in 1929. Indigenous people, foremost Hutus and Tutsis lost their traditional land rights in this process, and were evicted from the park. In 1934, the Institut des Parcs Nationaux du Congo Belge was founded as the governing body for national parks in the Belgian Congo. Between the early 1930s and 1961, several expeditions to Albert National Park were carried out by Belgian scientists, the second headed by Gaston-François de Witte. They studied and collected zoological specimens of wildlife for the Musée Royal d'Histoire Naturelle de Belgique; explored the ethnic groups in this area; studied volcanic activity, and fossils.
Land laws were reformed in the 1960s after the country became independent, and the land declared property of the state, much to the disadvantage of local people. Illegal hunting inside protected areas increased. In 1969, the two parks were merged under the name Virunga National Park and enlisted as UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.
Since the early 1990s, the protected area was impacted by political turmoil in the African Great Lakes region. Following the Rwandan genocide, thousands of refugees fled to the Kivu region and presence of military increased. The First and Second Congo Wars further destabilised the region. Anti-poaching patrols inside the park were obstructed, park personnel and wildlife killed. About 850,000 refugees lived around the national park in 1994. Up to 40,000 people entered the park daily in search of firewood and food, and deforested huge areas. In 1994, Virunga National Park was entered into the List of World Heritage in Danger. In 1996, the national park was enlisted as a Ramsar site of international importance.
In 2005, the European Commission (EC) recommended a public-private partnership between the country’s government and the British non-governmental organisation African Conservation Fund. Latter organisation is responsible for park management since 2010; about 80% of management costs are subsidised by the EC. Park protection efforts were militarized in the following years to deter armed rebel groups and poachers from operating inside the park.
In 2011, the British company Soco International was granted a concession for extracting crude oil in the surroundings of and in large parts of the national park. Government officials supported exploration activities by Soco International mission members, whereas park management opposed. In the course of increasing tensions, the park's chief warden Emmanuel de Mérode was assailed in April 2014. Following international protests, the company stopped exploring activities and consented to refrain from starting similar operations in the vicinity of World Heritage sites.
After the Second Congo War was over, confrontations between park personnel and rebel groups continued; 80 park staff were killed between 1996 and 2003. Several armed rebel groups operate in the park, including Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda and National Congress for the Defence of the People. Latter controlled the Mikeno sector of Virunga National Park between December 2006 and January 2009. They generate income by levying fees from local people for protecting prohibited activities inside the national park like poaching and clandestine fishing, logging, producing and smuggling charcoal, but also through armed robberies and kidnapping. In 2010, the United Nations Security Council estimated that the charcoal trade represents an annual value of US$ 28–30 million. Clashes also occur between park personnel and Mai-Mai militias in illegal settlements.
Five rangers were killed in August 2017 near Lake Edward in a militia attack. Five rangers and a driver were killed in April 2018. Since beginning of the armed conflict, armed groups killed 175 park rangers until April 2018. In May 2018, three tourists were kidnapped. The hostages were subsequently released unharmed. The park remains closed to visitors since June 2018.
Virunga National Park is located in the Congo − Nile watershed area. Its northern sector encompasses part of the Semliki River basin, as well as savanna and montane forest of the Albertine Rift. In altitude, this sector ranges from 680 m (2,230 ft) in the Puemba River valley to the highest peak of Mount Stanley at 5,109 m (16,762 ft) within 30 km (19 mi). The national park’s central sector encompasses about two third of Lake Edward up to the international border with Uganda in the east. A narrow corridor of 3–5 km (1.9–3.1 mi) width along the lake’s western bank connects the northern and southern sectors of the national park. The southern sector stretches to the shores of Lake Kivu and encompasses Nyamulagira, Nyiragongo and Mikeno volcanoes with montane forests on their slopes.
The northern sector of Virunga National Park is contiguous with Uganda’s Semuliki and Rwenzori Mountains National Parks, and the central sector with Queen Elizabeth National Park. The southern sector borders Ruanda’s Volcanoes National Park.
The climate in the Albertine Rift is influenced by the movement of the Intertropical Convergence Zone and the El Niño–Southern Oscillation. March to mid May and September to November are the main rainy seasons. Mean monthly rainfall in the savanna around Lake Edward is 30–40 mm (1.2–1.6 in); this is the driest part of the landscape. The northern sector receives a monthly mean precipitation of up to 220 mm (8.7 in), and the southern sector of up to 160 mm (6.3 in).
Virunga National Park's flora encompasses 2,077 plant species, including 264 tree species and 230 plants that are endemic to the Albertine Rift. The plains of Virunga National Park are dominated by wetlands and grasslands with papyrus sedge, common reed and sacaton grasses, jointed flatsedge, ambatch, conkerberry, paperbark thorn and kowai fruit. Remains of dicots such as African caper, Maerua species, wild cucurbits and nightshades were found in dung balls of African elephants that play a significant role for seed dispersal in the grasslands.
The montane forest between 1,800 and 2,800 m (5,900 and 9,200 ft) in the southern sector is dominated by Ficalhoa laurifolia and Podocarpus milanjianus with up to 25 m (82 ft) high trees. African alpine bamboo grows at altitudes of 2,300–2,600 m (7,500–8,500 ft). The vegetation above 2,600 m (8,500 ft) is subalpine with foremost African redwood growing up to 3,000 m (9,800 ft). Tree heath, heather and mosses cover humid slopes up to 3,700 m (12,100 ft) altitude. Senecio and Lobelia species grow on vast clearings and attain heights of up to 8 m (26 ft).
Primates present in the national park include mountain gorilla, golden monkey, chimpanzee, red-tailed monkey, mantled guereza, blue monkey and olive baboon, Hamlyn's monkey, Central African red colobus, De Brazza's monkey, Dent's mona monkey and grey-cheeked mangabey.
African bush elephant, hippopotamus and African buffalo inhabit the national park's central sector. In 2008, okapi, bongo, blue duiker, bay duiker, Weyns's duiker, yellow-backed duiker, water chevrotain, red river hog and aardvark were recorded in the northern sector. Giant forest hog and harnessed bushbuck are present in the southern sector. Other ungulates present include Ugandan kob, topi, waterbuck and warthog.
Virunga National Park together with the adjacent Queen Elizabeth National Park forms a Lion Conservation Unit. The area is considered a potential lion stronghold, if poaching is curbed and prey species recover. In the national park's northern sector, African leopard, marsh mongoose, giant pangolin, tree pangolin, crested porcupine, Lord Derby's scaly-tailed squirrel, Boehm's bush squirrel, Emin's pouched rat, checkered elephant shrew and western tree hyrax were recorded during surveys in 2008.
Ethnic groups living in and Virunga National Park include:
The documentary Virunga documents the work of Virunga National Park rangers and the activities of British oil company Soco International within the park. It was shown at international film festivals and released via the streaming service Netflix in November 2014.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Virunga National Park.|
- Official website
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