Volcanoes National Park (French: Parc National des Volcans) lies in northwestern Rwanda and borders Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda. The national park is known as a haven for the mountain gorilla. It is home to five of the eight volcanoes of the Virunga Mountains (Karisimbi, Bisoke, Muhavura, Gahinga and Sabinyo), which are covered in rainforest and bamboo. The park was the base for the zoologist Dian Fossey. A dramatic chain of seven volcanoes, this park is the definitive place to track the rare and captivating mountain gorillas. Forming a natural border with the DRC and Uganda, the area is one of the most beautiful in Africa. Dian Fossey’s account of her years with the gorillas and her battle with poachers and government officials is detailed in Gorillas in the Mist, a must-read before coming here. There is no habitat more evocative of the gorillas than the densely forested slopes of the Virunga volcanoes. Coming upon the Susa family of 35 on the slopes of Karisimbi is one of life’s unforgettable moments – no bars, no windows, three silverbacks eye the proceedings as infants and juveniles frolic on every side.
An exhilarating trek through the cultivated foothills of the Virunga offers stirring views in all directions. Then, abruptly, the trail enters the national park, immersing trekkers in the mysterious intimacy of the rainforest, alive with the calls of colorful birds and chattering of the rare golden monkey, and littered with fresh spoor of the mountains’ elusive populations of buffalo and elephant. Through gaps in the forest canopy, the magnificent peaks are glimpsed, easily accessible and among the highest in Africa, beckoning an ascent.
The bustling market town of Ruhengeri has a memorable setting at the base of the Virunga. On the outskirts of town, the natural bridge at Musanze – a solidified lava flow – is a fascinating relic of the volcanic activity that shaped this scenic area. Also within easy day tripping distance of Ruhengeri are the seldom visited but lovely Lakes Burera, Ruhondo and Karago. Ruhengeri offers a good selection of reasonably-priced small hotels and guest houses, including the newly renovated hotel Gorilla’s Nest. Visitors could also base themselves in Gisenyi or Kigali and – with an early start – head to the Parc des Volcans and Ruhengeri as a day trip.
The park is best known for the Mountain Gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei). Other mammals include: golden monkey (Cercopithecus mitis kandti), black-fronted duiker (Cephalophus Niger), buffalo (Syncerus caffer), Spotted Hyena (Crocuta Crocuta) and bushbuck (Tragelaphus scriptus). There are also reported to be some elephants in the park, though these are now very rare. There are 178 recorded bird species, with at least 13 species and 16 subspecies endemic to the Virunga and Ruwenzori Mountains.
Vegetation varies considerably due to the large altitudinal range within the park. There is some lower montane forest (now mainly lost to agriculture). Between 2400 and 2500 m, there is Neoboutonia forest. From 2500 to 3200 m Arundinaria alpine (bamboo) forest occurs, covering about 30% of the park area. From 2600 to 3600 m, mainly on the more humid slopes in the south and west, is Hagenia-Hypericum forest, which covers about 30% of the park. This is one of the largest forests of Hagenia abyssinica. The vegetation from 3500 to 4200 m is characterized by Lobelia wollastonii, L. lanurensis, and Senecio erici-rosenii and covers about 25% of the park. From 4300 to 4500 m grassland occurs. Secondary thicket, meadows, marshes, swamps and small lakes also occur, but their total area is relatively small.
The main activity is Gorilla visits, there are eight habituated groups open to tourists, allowing for a total of 64 permits per day. Tourists spend an hour with the gorillas, Golden monkey visits, Climbing of Karisimbi volcano – this is a two day trek with overnight camping at an altitude of 3,800 m, Climbing of Bisoke volcano-one day, Tour of the lakes and caves and Visiting the tomb of Dian Fossey.
The majority of revenue from tourism goes towards maintaining the park and conserving the wildlife. The remainder goes to the government and (around 10%) to local projects in the area to help local people benefit from the large revenue stream generated by the park.