Category: Congo

Must Read Guide to Gorilla Tracking in Virunga National Park

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Located in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Virunga National Park is one of the important UNESCO World Heritage Sites that you should visit while on safari in Africa. The park features as the oldest protected area in Africa and it is famous as one of the most spectacular and diverse conservation areas in the world. It comes with savanna, swamps, Lava plains, erosion valleys, tropical forests, powerful volcanoes and ice fields of the Rwenzori Mountains.

Virunga Volcano

Virunga National Park covers an area of about 7800 square kilometers and it was designated as the world heritage site purposely to offer refuge to the rare mountain. Out of 900 individuals of mountain gorillas that thrive in the world, 200 of them are found in the jungles of Virunga National Park. Whereas the political instability barred most visitors from realizing their dreams in the Virunga National Park, the Democratic Republic of Congo is recovering from the insecurities and Virunga National Park is open for tourism. The park is famous to offer refuge to not the mountain gorillas but also the powerful Nyiragongo volcano with the world’s largest Lava Lake and hiking through it comes with incredible snow capped Rwenzori Mountains.

Historically, Virunga National Park has been affected by the political situation in the country. It has tried to withstand the most of political unrest in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Appreciation goes to some politicians, conservationists, park rangers and wardens that the park has not only thrived but also currently experienced some growth in its tourism sector. Virunga National Park was established in 1925 by King Albert 1 of Belgium and initially was called Albert National Park, which featured as the first protected area in Africa.

It was established mainly to offer refuge to the rare mountain gorillas that thrive within its tropical rain forest. With time, the park was extended up to the Bwindi plains, Lake Edward and the Rwenzori Mountains in the north. Around the first 35 years, the park boundary gained its shape, poaching was kept off and sustainable tourism continued as a result of the big body that picked interest in conserving the critically endangered apes. Land remuneration and use of park resources like fishing and illegal hunting by the local residents turned to be a continuous challenge and efforts to save these endangered species was established.

Later, the park was renamed as the Virunga National Park and the first Congolese Wildlife Authority was founded and today it is called ICCN. Around 1979 the park was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Congolese Wildlife Authority drastically lost control of Virunga and the UNESCO turned its World Heritage Site status as endangered. About 25 years, the Virunga National Park withstood the instabilities from Rwandan genocide which led to deep destruction of protected area’s forest. Currently the Virunga is under the management of ICCN. Tourism in the park has kept improving right from zero in 2008 to 2000 in 2010. This came with new activities like habituation of chimpanzees around the Tongo and several luxurious lodges around the major tourist attractions in the southern regions, north of Goma.

The rare mountain gorillas in the Virunga National Park largely thrive around the Mikeno region, the park portion with forest that lies within the Nyiragongo Mountain. For lifetime experiences with Great apes, Virunga National Park features eight (8) habituated gorilla groups that have been set for tourism purposes. Gorilla permits are sold at $400 per visitor. Visitors on safari to Virunga equally have a chance to strike their imagination with these spectacular species within the one hour. Like any destination, visitors are advised to keep a distance of 7 to 8 meters away from the gorillas at all times and before setting off do not forget to put on your masks.

Only eight visitors are allowed to track one group of gorillas. Gorilla trekking in Virunga start from one of the 3 patrol stations Bukima where most park rangers and trackers will accompany visitors to the forest. Bukima station is famous with visitors and it is near Goma town and it also comes with tented camp for visitor stays. Treks in the Virunga national park range from 30 minutes to 3 hours but this depends on the visitor speed, location of gorilla family and nature habitat. The whole adventure needs you to be physically well as it involves hiking through the strenuous altitudes and the thick forests. For lifetime encounters, the park is best visited from June to September and December to February.

Accommodation options in Virunga National Park

Mikeno Lodge – Congo

There are several exceptional lodges and accommodation facilities for visitor stay in the park some of which include Mikeno Lodge which features as the first lodge to be opened in 2011 in the Virunga National Park. It is strategically located at the heat of Virunga’s tourist attractions (Mount Nyiragongo, mountain gorillas and chimpanzees). A stay in this lodge gives you a chance to visit the orphan gorillas at Senkwekwe centre.

The other lodges include the Bukima Tented Camp which lies within the main starting point for gorilla trekking. The lodge accommodates about 16 visitors. There is also Lake Kivu Lodge, Lulimbi Tented Camp, Nyiragongo Volcano Summit Shelters and Tchegera Island Camp.

While planning for this adventure make sure that you have packed appropriately starting with waterproof hiking boots, camera, insect repellent, long sleeved shirts/T-shirts, bottle of water, sun screen, hats and many more.
The Virunga National Park can be reached by air and road From Kigali International Airport where you will spend about 3 hours. It is advisable to book through tour operators or rent 4×4 car with driver in Kigali because self drive is not recommended in DR Congo.

For visitors who wish to travel by air, there are international flights and the notable airlines to use are the Ethiopian airlines and many domestic airlines that set off and land into Goma airport.
Basing on the above discussion, gorilla tracking is exceptionally one of the most strenuous experiences that require you to be physically well. You have to be prepared before traveling for the actual trek. However, a face to face encounter with the rare mountain gorillas is such a magical experience that comes once in a lifetime.

Eastern Lowland Gorillas in Kahuzi Biega National Park

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Located about 40 kilometers from Bukavu Town Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), South Kivu province next to Lake Kivu, Kahuzi Biega National Park is credited for its fascinating Eastern Lowland gorillas. The park covers an area of about 6000 square kilometers which makes it one of the largest protected areas in the DRC.

The park was gazetted in 1970’s primarily to offer refuge to the Great apes-Grauer’s gorillas. The Lowland gorillas are the largest sub-species of gorillas in Africa. About 284 Grauer’s gorillas are known to thrive in Kahuzi Biega National Park out of the total of population of 5000. When it comes to gorilla trekking safaris, visitors do not only look out for a group of these fascinating apes but also other wildlife.

About 135 species of mammal, 336 bird life and 12 other primate species including the Eastern chimpanzees, L’Hoests, the Blue monkeys, the black and white colobus many more can be sighted while on a gorilla safari in this spectacular protected area. Kahuzi Biega National Park is incredibly the best spot for you to catch a glimpse of the lowland gorillas while in their natural habitat.

Additionally, Kahuzi Biega National Park is a home to 2(two)Volcanoes; Mount Kahuzi and Mount Biega from which the park derived its name. Kahuzi Biega is strategically located at the mountainous and low-lying area making it one of the diverse protected areas with several Albertine Rift endemic species and 69 reptile species and 44 amphibian species. With countless biodiversity that is inhabited in its jungles, the park is one of the popular UNESCO world heritage sites that you can visit if you are planning to take a safari to DRC. However, guided safaris are highly recommended to this park other than self drive. If you can’t not afford a guided safari offered by tour operators, at least you can cheaply hire a car with driver to act as a local guide and drive you through DR Congo.

The Congolese Institute for Wildlife and Nature Conservation together with other conservation bodies amidst the civil wars, have tirelessly conserved not just the Eastern Lowland gorillas at Kahuzi Biega National Park alone but also several wildlife species within its habitat. With these collective efforts, Eastern Lowland gorilla tourism and conservation at Kahuzi Biega National Park has stood for years as it generates revenue not only to the government of Congo but also the local communities.

Regardless of political insecurity in DRC, Kahuzi Biega National Park still remains safe and secure for lowland gorilla trekking as the political unrest impact is primarily experienced in some parts of the Virunga National Park particularly in the Eastern part and Northern Kivu Province. Although the 1990’s civil wars caused much impact on the Eastern Lowland gorillas and other wildlife species as well as their habitat due to poaching, the current safety around the Park has led to increasing number of tourists have been and still visiting the park mainly for Eastern Lowland gorillas and other wildlife species as well as paying a visit to adjacent local communities.

The Grauer’s gorilla conservation in the DR Congo has been boosted by continuous efforts and initiatives on habituation of new gorilla groups, establishing a visitor center and accommodation facilities, introduction of more exciting tourism activities especially birding, volcano hiking experiences, empowering the local community members, training and equipping the park rangers so as to ensure longer visitor stay in the park. Like mountain gorilla trekking, Eastern Lowland trekking also allows visitors to spend only one hour with the apes. Permits for this lifetime experience cost $ 400 per person.

With about 12 groups that in Kahuzi Biega National Park, only two habituated gorilla families have been set for gorilla trekking while more two are also still under going habituation process and they will add the number to 4 (four) troops. The more habituated gorilla families, the more opportunities for trekkers to achieve their time dreams! Gorilla treks at Kahuzi Biega National Park start at Tschivanga visitor centre and the trek normally takes around 1 to 6 hours depending on location of their group, speed of the visitors, and nature of the habitat.

Trekking habituated gorilla families is advantageous as they come with many gorillas and this is of great benefit to trekkers as they are able to catch a glimpse of the silverback gorillas, female gorillas, infants, juveniles and sub silverback gorillas. Equally, tracking the Eastern Lowland gorillas also allows only 8 (eight) visitors per gorilla group.
The two habituated gorilla groups in Kahuzi Biega National Park include the following;

Chimanuka gorilla group:

Chimanuka Gorilla Group – Congo

The Chimanuka family was named after the silverback gorilla-Chimanuka. This is the largest troop that you shouldn’t miss to track while on safari in Kahuzi Biega National Park. It is composed of about 37 gorillas, 17 female gorillas, 19 infants of about six months and nine years. The group is credited for its four sets of twins some thing very unique with the Eastern gorilla populations.

Mugaruka Gorilla Group:

Mugaruka a dominant silverback gorilla that lost one of his hands to poachers’ trap and currently he is the dominant silverback gorilla in Mugaruka family just after losing his female gorilla and many infants during the fight with Chimanuka. The Mugaruka troop is popularly called the last born of the sons of the late patriarch, Mushamuka. This silverback was born in 1987 and at the age of 3 (three) he got trapped in poachers’ snares which made him to lose his right hand. When he turned 10 years, he took over his father’s gorilla family-Mushamuka. Between 1999 and 2007, Mugaruka encountered many challenges from Chimanuka that led to loss of most of the members to Chimanuka. By 2007, Mugaruka also lost his last female gorilla known as Lushasha and his first born Cubaka which explains why he is the only gorilla in the group.

The other groups that are still under going habituation include the Mankoto and Mpungwe
When it comes to where to stay while on gorilla safari in Kahuzi Biega National Park, there are no safari lodges within the park but there are some near by accommodations like Exodus Hotel, Horizon Hotel, Coco Lodge, Hotel Begonias, Ruby Guest House, Orchids Safari Club or alternatively you can go for camping offers.

In conclusion, Kahuzi Biega National Park offers visitors yet another exciting gorilla adventure of lifetime. If you are planning your mountain gorilla trekking in Virunga National Park, do not forget to visit Kahuzi Biega National Park for lowland gorilla trekking experiences.