Virunga National Park

Africa’s oldest national park, set aside in 1925—now a U.N. World Heritage Site—has habitats ranging from marshy deltas to savannahs, lava plains, and snowfields of the Ruwenzori Mountains.

Historically some of the largest wild animal concentrations in Africa have been in this 3,160- square-mile (8,184-km2) reserve—in savannah, African elephants, hippos, buffalo, a range of antelopes including kobs, Defassa’s waterbucks, topi, warthogs, lions; in the Semiliki Valley and on slopes of the Virungas, mountain gorillas, chimpanzees, and okapi; in the extreme north, forest hogs and bongos.

Prehistoric-looking shoebill storks, elegant crowned cranes, Goliath herons, and martial eagles are among bird species, as, probably, are rare papyrus yellow warblers.

Virunga is contiguous with Rwanda’s PARC NATIONAL DES VOLCANSand in Uganda, RUWENZORI MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARKand QUEEN ELIZABETH NATIONAL PARK(BWINDI IMPENETRABLE FOREST—is nearby), altogether an enormous set-aside of wild lands. It has suffered with other reserves in this region from civil strife both here and in neighboring countries which has brought refugees and sometimes armed invasion, with consequent destruction of wildlife and park facilities (timber losses from fuel-wood cutting alone were estimated at 600 metric tons a day at the height of the refugee incursion). Fortunately wildlife if protected and let alone often adapts and survives. Simple conservation measures can help—as distribution of energy-efficient stoves in refugee camps is estimated to have saved at least 16 square miles (40 km2) of forests in two years.

Access to the park is by road from Goma or by light plane. Accommodations have been available at Rwindi and Djomba, and more modestly, at Mabenga and Kanyabayonga. Best times are December–January, when rains let up, and June, start of the dry season (July–September are dry but haze often spoils views). Djomba is the main center for viewing gorillas—best reserve ahead since groups are limited to eight. Rwindi, with the main lodge, is center for much of the rest of the wildlife viewing, both in plains and nearby Lake Edward. Beni is turn-off for the Ruwenzoris and Ishango, with camping and wonderful birding on the north shore of Lake Edward. A sanctuary specifically protecting chimpanzees is at Tongo. Major roads go to all these.