DRC’s Virunga to welcome visitors again after 8-month closure

  • Escalating violence in mid-2018, resulting in the deaths of seven park rangers, forced the closure of Virunga National Park to visitors.
  • The park is known for its diverse wildlife, especially its mountain gorillas, as well as its active volcano, but its location in eastern DRC is one of the most volatile regions on earth.
  • After assessing the security of the park, officials will reopen stable areas for visitors on Feb. 15 interested in trekking to see the gorillas and to visit the rim of the volcano.

Virunga National Park in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo will reopen its gates to tourists on Feb. 15 after officials closed them more than eight months ago.

A spate of violence in the first half of 2018 led the park’s director, Emmanuel de Merode, to shutter its tourism operations to shore up security for visitors and the 600 guards who patrol the park’s 7,800 square kilometers (3,000 square miles). Despite decades of unpredictable violence in the province of North Kivu where the park sits, Virunga had continued to draw visitors eager to see its mountain gorillas and other diverse wildlife, as well as Mount Nyiragongo, an active volcano.

A sign welcomes visitors to a site in Virunga National Park, the oldest national park in Africa. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

But two bloody months in 2018 necessitated a change, de Merode said. In April, members of one of the militia groups that stalk the forests around Virunga killed six guards in an ambush. Then, in May, another guard was killed and two British tourists were abducted in a militia attack as they were being driven through the park. The attackers also injured the driver, though they released the tourists the next day.

“The safety of our visitors will always be our highest priority,” de Merode said in a statement as reported by The Guardian newspaper. “It is abundantly clear that the Virunga is deeply affected by insecurity and that this will be the case for some time. For Virunga to be safely visited, much more robust measures are necessary than in the past.”

In the past 20 years, some 180 rangers have lost their lives protecting tourists and wildlife in Virunga.

Seeing mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) is a highlight of many visits to the park. Aggressive conservation in Virunga and in neighboring Rwanda and Uganda has helped the subspecies’ numbers rebound, so much so that the IUCN downgraded its threat level from critically endangered to endangered in 2018. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

Now, however, the park’s leaders have decided to allow visitors in again, “following a rigorous assessment of both the situation on the ground, as well as the Park’s security protocols,” a spokesperson told Mongabay in an email.

The spokesperson said tourists would only be allowed in parts of the park “removed from areas of instability.” Virunga’s staff have also changed what’s available for tourists, currently limited to treks to see the gorillas and to visit the rim of Nyiragongo, according to the Virunga National Park website.

A growing human population lives just outside parts of Virunga. As pressure on the land increases, deforestation near and even within the park, for charcoal as well as farmland, has risen as well. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

In addition to the region’s violence, deforestation has become a growing threat. The forest monitoring platform Global Forest Watch has tracked a recent spike in tree cover loss within the boundaries of the park. The analysis shows that small-scale clearing occurred across about 500 hectares (1,200 acres) of Virunga between May and September 2018. WWF told Mongabay in October the tree cover loss likely stemmed from the production of charcoal for cooking fuel and the clearance of new areas for farming.

Banner image of a mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) in Virunga National Park by John C. Cannon/Mongabay. 

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This story first appeared on Mongabay

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