The deadly irresistible beauty of Africa’s oldest national park

Virunga National Park was established in 1925 by Belgium’s first king, Albert, and was first named Albert National Park, before the named was changed to Virunga National Park.

  • Virunga national park is home to a quarter of the world’s critically endangered 880 mountain gorillas.
  • The endangered okapi, a zebra-like relative of the giraffe and national symbol of the Congo, also inhabit the vast Virunga national park and draws thousands of tourists every year.
  • 175 rangers have been killed in the line of duty since 1925 when the park was established, effectively making Virunga National Park the world’s most dangerous park.

Boosting two amazing active volcanoes of Mt. Nyiragongo and Mt.Nyamuragira and home to a quarter of the world’s critically endangered 880 mountain gorillas plus a host of other animals like chimpanzees, hippopotami, elephants, lions and different bird species, Virunga national park is without a doubt one of the world’s most stunning parks offering a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

“Virunga National Park should be included in anyone’s itinerary when travelling to Africa. I had climbed eight volcanoes before my trip to DRC but Nyamuragira and Nyiragongo were heads above,” one review reads on the park’s website.

The endangered okapi, a zebra-like relative of the giraffe and national symbol of the Congo, also inhabit the vast Virunga national park and draws thousands of tourists every year who want a peek of the ‘forest giraffe’.

Such is the irresistible beauty of Congo’s Virunga National Park.

However, danger is never far away in this breathtaking national park.

On May 12th, 2018, Rachel Masika Baraka aged 25, was shot and killed by gunmen in the park, joining a long list of rangers killed in their line of duty.

Two British tourists and their driver were kidnapped by the gunmen apparently for ransom, throwing the whole park and London in a complete state of fear. The tourists were later released even though authorities are mum if at all they paid any ransom to secure their release.

The incident forced Belgian prince Emmanuel de Merode who is the director of the Virunga National Park to suspend all tourism activities at the world famous park.

“Following a security incident on Friday 11 May 2018 Virunga National Park has taken the decision to halt tourism until June 4th,” a notice on the park’s website read.

Ms Baraka was the first female ranger to be killed and the eighth ranger to be killed this year alone. In April, five rangers and their driver were shot dead in an ambush by suspected militiamen.

In total, 175 have been killed in the line of duty since 1925 effectively making the Virunga National Park the world’s most dangerous park.

The lawlessness in the park took a turn for the worse when DRC slid into chaos after Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku lost his grip on power; he was finally toppled in 1997.

"Virunga suffered terribly. Poaching depleted the park's large mammal populations, infrastructure was destroyed, and many rangers were killed. The Congolese Wildlife Authority slowly lost control of Virunga and Unesco changed the World Heritage Site status to "endangered," the park says on its website.

“Over the 25 years that followed, the park staff endured an almost uninterrupted series of trials that included a refugee crisis from the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which contributed to the severe destruction of park forests, and the proliferation of armed militias throughout the park... By the end of 2008 it seemed as if Virunga was finished," it adds.

Between 1,500 and 2,000 armed militia belonging to numerous different rebel groups and battling for control of the region’s rich resources roam Virunga and its surrounding areas compared to just about 500 park rangers.

The rebel groups’ fish illegally, slaughter animals, fell trees and kill, rape and abduct locals and foreigners alike.

Virunga’s rich mineral wealth does not help matters either, the park has deposits of expensive metals and oil, attracting local and international mercenaries who want to make a quick buck.

However, despite risking their lives daily, the rangers who undergo training by European special force instructors’ belief saving the park from destruction is more important than even their own lives.

"Even though it's probably one of the most dangerous jobs on the planet, not a single ranger has left the ranger corps. They've pulled off one of the greatest achievements in modern conservation, which is not just the protection of the mountain gorillas but also the recovery of the gorilla population, which has quadrupled since 1985," Mr De Merode told BBC.

Tourism contributes about $2 million towards Virunga’s annual budget of about $9 million.

Virunga National Park was established in 1925 by Belgium’s first king, Albert, and was first named Albert National Park, Parc National des Virunga (in French) before the named was changed to Virunga National Park.

Virunga National Park is perhaps the world’s last historical timepieces and offers humanity a rare chance to have a glance of the past and see just how the cradle of mankind used to be in her true unspoiled beauty before mankind got greedy, and for that, it deserves to be protected for generations to come.

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