Virunga National Park (0°55'N -1°35'S and 29°10 - 30°00'E) is a World Heritage Site in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DCR) that contains within 790,000 hectares (ha) the greatest diversity of habitats of any park in Africa: from steppes, savannas and lava plains, swamps, lowland and montane forests to volcanoes and the unique giant herbs and snowfields of Ruwenzori over 5,000 meters (m) high. It is. Thousands of hippopotamuses lived in its rivers, its mountains are a critical area for the survival of mountain and lowland gorillas, and birds from Siberia overwinter there.
Threats to the Site
The Park was placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger in 1994 after civil war in Rwanda and the influx of 1.5 - 2 million refugees into Kivu province. This led to massive uncontrollable poaching and deforestation: 9,000 hippopotamus were killed; fuelwood cut for refugee camps was estimated at 600 metric tons/day, depleting and erasing the lowland forests. Most of the staff were unpaid and lacked means to patrol the 650 kilometer (km) -long boundary. The north and center of the park were successively abandoned; many guards were killed. Protective soldiery also turned to poaching. The fishing village near Lake Edward (Rutanzige) grew to threaten the integrity of the Park. Most of the gorillas living higher up the mountains have survived but tourism ceased. The park has become a threatened island in a sea of subsistence cultivation.
In 1996, the World Heritage Committee recognized that major effort would be needed for at least ten years after this tragedy to rehabilitate and restore management of the Park and regain local support for its conservation. The UNHCR and other agencies in charge of refugee camps sited within and on the edges of Virunga were contacted and the government informed of the Committee's wish to help the IUCN and world institutions by providing training and technical assistance to deal with the threats to the park.
Date And History of Establishment
- 1929: Established as an extension of the Albert National Park, founded in 1925, the first in Africa;
- 1969: Revised by Decree No. 69-041 as Virunga National Park, excluding a part which became the Parc National des Volcans in Rwanda;
- 1996: Designated a Ramsar site (800,000 ha).
790,000 ha. Contiguous for 45 km with the Rwenzori Mountains National Park in Uganda (99,600 ha), also a World Heritage Site, for 50 km with the Parc National des Volcans in Rwanda (15,000ha) and for a few kilometers with Mgahinga Gorilla National Park (2,900 ha) in Uganda, all potential elements of a transboundary park.
Government, 95% in Kivu Province, 5% in Haut-Zaire. Administered by the Institut Congolais (formerly Zairois) pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN).
798 m in the north, 916 m at Lake Edward (Rutanzige) to 4,506 m on Mt. Karisimbi in the Virunga Mountains and 5,119 m in the Mt. Margherita peak of Mount Ngaliema (Mt. Stanley) in the Ruwenzori range.
- forested granitic Rwenzori mountains;
- forested volcanic Virunga massifs;
- lowland forest;
- savanna; and,
- swamp-edged lake.
It has three sections:
North: half the forested Semliki valley north of Lake Edward (Rutanzige), with half the central part of the Rwenzori range to its east;
Central: two-thirds of the shores of Lake Edward (Rutanzige) and most of the lowland valley swamps and savannas of the Rwindi, Rutshuru and Ishasha rivers to its south; and
South: the Nyamuragira - Nyiragongo lava plateau and the northwestern fifth of the volcanic Virunga massif, shared with Rwanda.
The area in the Virungas comprises the flanks of volcanic Mts. Karisimbi, Mikeno, Visoke, Sabinyo, Nyamuragira and Nyiragongo (3,469 m), the last two still very active: an eruption of Nyiragongo destroyed 14 villages and an estimated 40% of the town of Goma on Lake Kivu in January 2002, and Nyamuragira twice erupted later that year. All of the Park's waters flow into the Nile system except for the Lake Kivu drainage which flows to the Congo. The steep western face of the Ruwenzoris is glaciated and shares the third (Mt. Ngaliema), fourth and fifth highest mountains in Africa with Rwenzori National Park in Uganda. Biotopes include lakes at various elevations, marshy deltas and peat bogs, hot springs (at Ma-yamoto) and saline soils in the Rwindi plains, steppes, savannas and lava plains, lowland equatorial forest, dry and transitional forests, high montane forests, and alpine heath in the Ruwenzori. The whole length of the Park is bordered to the west by unprotected but species-rich forested mountains.
The areas of lowest and highest rainfall in the D.R.C. are found in Virunga National Park less than 75 km apart. Rain falls all year but more heavily from March to May and mid-September to mid-December, with drier spells following each. Annual rainfall averages 500 millimeters (mm) at Lake Edward (Rutanzige), 900-1,500 mm on the plains south of the lake, decreases higher on the volcanoes but on the west slope of the Ruwenzori orographic precipitation is almost 3,000 mm. These mountains have heavier snowfall than Mounts Kenya or Kilimanjaro, are permanently ice and snow-covered and carry small retreating glaciers. Their 4,000 m attitudinal range results in marked climatic variations with a consequent diversity of habitats. The mean annual temperature in the lowlands is between 20o and 23oC with a 12oC diurnal range.
The region was originally a vast forest refuge for innumerable species, largely deforested during the 20th century. The Park borders several biogeographical zones and covers three major habitat types: open grassland, closed forest and humid montane. Within these it protects a very wide variety of habitats. 1,938 species have been recorded. The following is based on the 1980 IZCN Biosphere Reserve submission to UNESCO.
The open land habitats grade from steppe to savanna to swamp, the result of low rainfall, soil type, grazing and fire. 1): grassy Chrysochloa orientalis steppe to bushy steppe with Carissa edulis, Capparis tomentosa, Maerua spp.and Euphorbia candelabrum; 2): low savanna with Themeda triandra and Imperata cylindrica; 3): grassy savannas of three types - Pennisetum in the Semliki valley, Cymbopogon on the plains around the lake and Hyparrhenia in the far north; 4): bushy savannas - Combretum-wooded Hyperthelia dissoluta savanna and Acacia seiberiana-A. gerrardii woodland, both on the Mitumba foothills west of the lake; 5): transitional grasslands - Craterostigma nanum prairies and Sporobolus spp. savanna; 6): riverine grasslands - Cyperus papyrus marsh, Phragmites australis marsh; and 7): aquatic vegetation.
Forest habitats grade from thickets to dense forests. 1): thickets around the lake and on Mt. Misali; 2): thick sclerophyllous forest of Euphorbia dawei in the southwest; 3): lava plain pioneer species in all stages of recolonization, culminating on loose soils in Neoboutonia macrocalyx forest; 4): dense equatorial forest over half the northern sector; 5): gallery forests - shade-loving forest on the upper Rwindi, a fringe of Phoenix reclinata on the lower Rutshuru and drier forests on the upper Semliki; 6): dense montane forest from 1,800 to 2,300 m on Rwenzori and on Mt. Tshiaberimu west of the lake, on Mt Kasali south of the plains, on Mt. Kamatembe in the southwest and on the Virunga massif between 1,750 and 2,600 m.
Montane habitats grade from transitional foothill forest to alpine zones. 1): Arundinaria alpina bamboo woodland on the slopes of all the larger mountains; 2): Hagenia abyssinica woodland becoming bushy, mixed with large hardy perennials like Peucedanum kerstenii; 3): a high scrub layer, then tree heath of Erica and Philippia species, associated on the Virungas with Podocarpus latifolius, on Rwenzori with Hypericum ruwenzoriense, Hagenia abyssinica and Rapanea rhododendroides; and a low and grassy understorey layer; 4): afro- alpine groves of Senecio stanleyi with giant Lobelia wollastonii in clearings; 5): sparse vegetation above 4,300 m mainly of lichens and spermatophytes, although grasses have been found growing over 5,000 m.
Before the civil war some of the largest wild animal concentrations in Africa lived in the grasslands along the rivers of the park. There were some 200 species of mammals in the park, 23 of them threatened. The savannas support elephant Loxodonta africana (E) in the southern plains (3,000 in 1960, 674 in 1971, 500 in 1988) and at least 486 in 1998, hippopotamus Hippopotamus amphibius (33,000 in 1986, 3,000 in 1996, essentially decimated by late 1996), buffalo Syncerus caffer (LR), numerous antelope including kob Kobus kob thomasi (LR) and Defassa waterbuck K.defassa (LR), warthog Phacochoerus aethiopicus, various monkeys, and leopards Panthera pardus are widespread though few and little seen, but lions Panthera leo (VU) may have increased in numbers.
Mountain gorillas Gorilla g. beringei live on the slopes of the Virungas. Out of a total mountain gorilla population of 630 animals, about 140 were recorded there in 1980 and 279 in 1986. But between 1989 and 2001 their numbers increased from 320 to 355 owing to efficient patrolling. Eastern lowland gorillas Gorilla g. graueri live on Mount Tshiaberimu northwest of the lake and in the Semliki valley forests, threatened by illegal farmers and tree fellers. Other uncommon animals are an isolated population of 30-40 chimpanzees Pan troglodytes schweinfurthi (E) in the southern lava field forest of Tongo, and in the north, a small relict population of okapi Okapia johnstoni (LR), topi Damaliscus korrigum (LR), forest hog Hylochoerus meinertzhageni and bongo Tragelaphus euryceros (LR); also three species of pangolin Manis spp.and the aardvark Orycteropus afer.
Avifauna is very diverse: over 800 species are claimed, 24 being endemic to the Virungas. The wetlands include herons, ibisis, egrets, bitterns, duck, geese, darters, cormorants, skimmers, shoebills, openbills, ospreys, gulls, francolins, warblers and weavers and there are large numbers of pelicans on the lower Rutshuru river. The papyrus yellow warbler Chloropeta gracilirostris (VU) may exist in the far north. Rare birds in the volcanic highlands are Grauer's swamp warbler Bradypterus graueri (VU) in highland swamps, and Rockefellers sunbird Nectarinia rockefelleri (VU) in bamboo, forest and heath stream thickets; in the Ruwenzori mountain forests, Shelley's crimsonwing Cryptospiza shelleyi and Stuhlmann's doublecollared sunbird Nectarinia stuhlmanni in the bamboo and alpine zones. Notable mountain forest birds are the Rwenzori turaco, Musophaga johnstoni and the handsome francolin, Francolinus nobilis; also the forest ground thrush Turdus oberlaenderi and the shoebill Balaeniceps rex.
Lake Edward (Rutanzige) which is shallow, has an impoverished fish fauna, but many cichlid species, and quite a rich invertebrate fauna. Recently crocodiles Crocodilus niloticus have returned to the upper Semliki river. The monitor lizard Varanus niloticus and snakes are common including python Python sebae, puff adder Bitis arietans, blacknecked cobra Naja nigricollis, and green mamba Dendroaspis jamesoni.
Little information is available, but the oldest stone tools in the world have been found along the lake shores.
Local Human Population
There was virtually no human population except for some Batwa pygmy hunters when the park was created, but a population explosion occurred in the late 1950s. Because of its fertility and cool, malaria-free climate, Kivu is now the most densely populated province in the country with over 300 inhabitants per square kilometers (km2). Local tribes such as the Banande who live in the foothills of the Ruwenzori settled on the park borders. Some 60% of the park's boundaries are now densely populated. Small administrative posts and villages of the past have become large towns and are sometimes populated by outsiders, for example, the Bakiga from Uganda who poach but have never officially occupied park territory. Within the park are three fishing villages, Vitshumbi, Kiavinonge and Nyakakoma, where a population of 20,000 grew to 35,000 from 1988 to 1993. During and after the wars, 600,000 million Rwandan refugees were housed in camps within or bordering the park. But country-wide the civil war has also led to a continuous decimation of the people.
Visiting and Visitor Facilities
On its opening, the park's tourists numbered 8-10,000 a year, contributing a major source of revenue. The gorillas, huge animal aggregations and the volcanoes are still powerful attractions. There is accommodation at Rwindi and Djomba, Mabenga and Kibati and more than 5,000 people visited the park at Rwindi in 1992. Verschuren (1988) made several recommendations concerning visitor reception and activities. However, since the war sightseeing in the area and after 1998 gorilla-viewing both stopped. Conditions may allow tourism to resume.
Scientific Research and Facilities
The Park was set up primarily for scientific research during Belgian rule. Much detailed work was carried out on specific taxa, from insects to mammals, particularly in the 1930s and 1950s, largely by Belgians. Censuses of the gorilla population, funded by WWF, the New York and Frankfurt Zoological Societies in 1986 showed that numbers were beginning to recover. They recommended international co-operation to improve protection over all three neighboring parks. The UNHCR led a satellite imagery study of deforestation during 1987-1995. Several other studies have had to be abandoned and the field station at Lulimbi on the lake is now in ruins, but aided by the Rwandan army, a census of the mountain gorillas has been made.
The Park has the greatest diversity of habitats within a single African park. It ranges from swamps and steppes, lava plains and savannas, dense lowland and higher bamboo forests to the snowfields of Ruwenzori, and the volcanoes of Virunga with a correspondingly very wide array of flora and fauna. It is a refuge for hippopotamuses, mountain and lowland gorillas, and the highlands have notable examples of the high altitude flora of giant herbs unique to the mountains of Africa.
An 'integral conservation policy' has been in operation for over 50 years but the Park has no management plan. Savanna fires, which maintain the fire-climax vegetation, have been managed in the past by the park authorities. The IUCN and WWF surveyed the gorillas to provide data needed to improve their preservation and the protection of their habitat. There were major ranger camps at Rwindi (central sector), Rumengabo (southern sector) and Matsura (northern sector) and approximately 50 guard posts throughout the park. The Park was managed from Kinshasa and Goma by the IZCN (later ICCN), an agency of parastatal status but institutionally weak. This was discussed by Verschuren (1988). The Park has been under siege and increasingly difficult to control since 1990, although the Southern sector, owing to good relations between the military and Park authorities and the help of the International Gorilla Conservation Program, has been less ravaged than the rest.
The Park is densely surrounded by a very poor and widely unemployed population which covets its potential agricultural land and is strongly opposed to the Park authorities: its staff have little equipment and low motivation and morale. Since the Rwandan civil war, 1990-1994 and the civil unrest in former Zaire from 1996 on the Park has been ravaged by soldiery. Some 95% of its boundaries are now in densely cultivated land and in many places no longer clearly marked. The increasing pressure of population and scarcity of land has exacerbated ethnic discord and disrupted animal migration patterns. Between July 1994 and September 1996, some 1.5 to 2 million Rwandans took refuge in Zaire, about half of them near Goma, which effectually transferred the war to Zaire. Five refugee camps were sited by UNHCR and NGOs within or next to the park without sufficient regard to conserving the environment. Commercial exploitation was even encouraged by some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on humanitarian grounds. The southern sector of the Park came under the control of the Rwandan Rassemblement Congolais pour la Democratie (RCD Goma). The northern and north central sectors came under the control of two splinter RCD groups later merged with the Ugandan army backed Front de Liberation du Congo (FLC).
At least 500 km2 of the lowland forest in the southern sector of the Park was estimated to have been affected by woodcutting and uncontrollable poaching. Wood cut by the refugees for fuel, charcoal and shelter was estimated at 600 metric tons per day. Chegera Island in Lake Kivu and other lakeside areas had been settled and cultivated. Two years after the refugees arrived, 113 km2 of the Park had been deforested, 71 km2 being completely stripped and almost 5% of the gorilla forest habitat in Virunga had been affected. By 2001 it was said that more than 150 km2 of forest had been cut down, commercial exploitation of timber and game being widely practiced by the Rwandan Interahamwe and Mai-Mai militias. However, the most recent report is that there are regular patrols and the area and the mountain gorilla population are stable, in fact the gorilla population has increased from 325 to 355 over the past decade. The International Gorilla Conservation Program is helping to restore links with staff in the other sectors.
45% of the central sector is now being used for coffee and tea cultivation, fuelwood, logging and housing. The fishing villages have grown so large they threaten the integrity of the Park and overexploit the fishery. Human and medical wastes were dumped in the park and illegal gold mining also occurred. Fortunately the Park contains few valuable mineral resources. 2,500 families are massed along the Park's boundaries. Hima pastoralists have moved 3,500 head of cattle into the protected area. Concern for the Park, especially the recurring encroachments, increases in population along the borders, refugee-related problems and the destruction for profit of woodlands, elephants and gorillas led to the site's listing as World Heritage in Danger in 1994. Staff are unable to enter this sector which is now of serious concern.
The northern and central sectors of the park, dominated by the militia of two governments which live off poaching, and invaded by over 20,000 families, have been almost abandoned. As early as 1995, 44 park guards and 12 mountain gorillas have been killed and the hippopotamus population has been reduced by 90% in ten years. Fish stocks and wildlife are under increasingly heavy pressure and large areas have been logged. However, funded by the UNESCO/DRC/UNF Project, staff have begun to patrol the northern sector again. Conservation Service had evacuated 3000 people from the northern sector of the park and it had become dangerous to patrol. Being unarmed, rangers required military escort to make patrols at all. Many staff were not paid for several years and had no way of patrolling the 650 km-long boundary. Then in October 1996 rebel Zairean forces controlling much of eastern Zaire launched an offensive to take over the Government. Militia groups became active throughout the area. Many guns abandoned by fleeing soldiers fell into the hands of poachers or local people, greatly endangering the lives of the few remaining park personnel who attempted to stop the destruction. Poaching by hostile armed soldiers, government staff and Ugandans took elephant, hippopotamus, buffalo, okapi and monkeys. Most of the park infrastructure was looted or destroyed and links with Kinshasa were broken. S
In 1999, facing the emergency, a United Nations Foundation project arranged for major funding for park equipment and salaries from 2000-2004 to all the World Heritage Sites in the DRC. The next year the Belgian government promised similar assistance. But by mid 2000 few UNF funds seemed to be reaching the field and a DRC Emergency Relief Mission of international NGOs was supplying equipment and creating public awareness of the damage. A report by I.Redmond was commissioned by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund (DFGF) and others to protest the effect of the mining boom on the eastern lowland gorillas and other wildlife. He noted within the parks the drastic clearing of forests for fuel, charcoal, agriculture, construction and many settlements, continuous overhunting for meat, ivory and sale to collectors, destruction of the large animals and the maiming and disturbance of other wildlife. He also noted the needs to release funds to equip and pay guards, to coordinate the many NGOs)and agencies concerned and for economic help to surrounding communities. Another report noted total destruction of the Park's hippotamus population and decimation of buffalo and antelopes. It noted that soldiers, dealers, army commanders and officials, local and foreign, were the main immediate beneficiaries of the plunder.
In April 2001, the UN Security Council released a report damning the trade in minerals from protected areas, its role in financing the Rwandan and Ugandan occupations, citing the World Bank and Citibank as passive participants and naming army and government officials in Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi profiting from it. And in May 2001, UNEP launched the Great Apes Survival Project to protect threatened species. However, two thirds of the worst deforestation was in forests of the lava plain, which are relatively low in diversity and 50% of the areas stripped were of common second growth trees where the potential for regeneration is high. Measures by GTZ importing plantation wood and distributing energy-efficient stoves around the camps may also have saved some 40 km2 of park forests during 1994-96. Devastation was less where protection was started at the same time as the camps. By 2000 the World Heritage Committee, confirming major grants to restore the park service, stated that conditions were stabilizing, but by 2002, serious encroachments from Rwanda again threatened the Park.
There are three major ranger stations (Rwindi, Rumangabo and Mutsora) and two subsidiary stations. In 1980, according to the Park administrator, the establishment was a total of 3 senior staff with 3 researchers and 540 rangers (by 1991 only 300). During the 1990s wars disrupted the service: many of the staff were unpaid for years; they were also disarmed in 1996 at the beginning of the war and at least 44 rangers have been killed.
Initially the park was subsidized with 600,000 zaires annually. From 1987 to 1991 the European Economic Community (EEC) with United States Agency for International Development (USAID) granted US$10 million. In 1993 WWF gave an US$6,220 anti-poaching grant for the northern sector and supported education and tree-planting programs. IGCP paid to protect the gorillas until UNHCR withdrew the funds to distribute them more evenly. However, in 1999 the WWF and DFGF raised US$30,000 to pay for staff and equipment, and the United Nations Fund promised US$4,186,600, two-thirds of it outright, to compensate and pay staff of all five World Heritage Sites in the D.R.C. between 2000 and 2004. In 2000 the Belgian government also promised US$500,000 for the five DRC parks from 2001-2004. Up to mid 2001, little of the UNF funding appears to have reached the rangers on site, eroding morale.
IUCN Management Category
- II National Park. Ramsar site.
- Natural World Heritage Site, inscribed in 1979. Natural Criteria ii, iii, iv.
- Listed as World Heritage in Danger in 1994 because of invasion by vast numbers of war refugees and subsequent massive poaching, deforestation and degradation.
Many scientific publications are obtainable through L'Institut Royal des Sciences Naturelles de Belgique, rue Vautier 29, B-1040 Bruxelles.
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