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Volcanoes National Park (Parc National des Volcan)

Volcanoes National Park (Parc National des Volcan)

Volcanoes National Park, or Parc National des Volcan, in northwestern Rwanda borders Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda. This national park is a renowned haven for the mountain gorilla and was the base for the zoologist Dian Fossey. It is home to five of the eight volcanoes in the Virunga Mountains—Karisimbi, Bisoke, Muhabura, Gahinga, and Sabyinyo—all of which are covered in rainforest and bamboo.

The park’s most famous visitor, Dian Fossey, arrived in 1967 and set up the Karisoke Research Center to carry out her gorilla research. She is widely credited with saving the gorillas from extinction by bringing their plight to the attention of the international community. She was murdered by unknown assailants at her home in 1985, a crime often attributed to the poachers she had spent her life fighting. She is buried in the park in a grave close to the research center and among the gorillas to which she dedicated her life.

Volcanoes National Park became a battlefield during the Rwandan Civil War, and the park headquarters were attacked in 1992. The research center was abandoned, and all tourist activities (including visiting the gorilla) were stopped. The park did not resume normal activities until 1999 when the area was deemed to be safe and under control. In subsequent years, there were additional infiltrations by Rwandan rebels from the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, but these were always stopped quickly by the Rwandan army. Today, there is considered to be no threat to tourism in the park.

Vegetation in this region varies considerably due to the large altitudinal range within the park. At around 8,000 feet, Neoboutonia forest occurs, giving way to Arundinaria alpina (bamboo) and Hagenia-Hypericum forests at the higher elevations (each covering about 30% of the park area). Above 12,000 feet, the landscape is characterized by Lobelia wollastonii, L. lanurensis, and Senecio erici-rosenii, covering about 25% of the park. The terrain above 14,000 feet is grassland dotted by occasional thicket, marshes, and small lakes.

The park is best known for its mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei), and roughly half the world’s population of this primate are found here. Other primates and mammals include Ruwenzori Colobus, L'hoest monkey, silver monkey, golden monkey, owl faced monkey, red tailed monkey, dent's monkey, crowned monkey, black faced vervet monkey, grey cheeked mangabey, Olive Baboons, Galagos and Pottosgolden monkey, black-fronted duiker, buffalo, spotted hyena, and bushbuck. There have also been reported sightings of elephant in the park, though these are now very rare. There are almost 200 recorded bird species, with at least thirteen species and sixteen subspecies endemic to the Virunga and Ruwenzori Mountains.

Activities in the park center on gorilla visits; there are eight habituated groups that visitors can observe (see additional information below). Guests also enjoy visits to the golden monkeys, climbing Karisimbi and Bisoke volcanoes, and touring the region’s lakes and caves.

Gorilla safaris visit up to eight habituated groups. Susa is presently comprised of 39 mountain gorillas, which includes three silverback gorillas, black backs, juveniles, and infants. Amahoro group has fifteen gorillas and is led by one silverback. Their home range is around Visoke. The Hirwa group is located at the base of the Sabyinyo volcano and boasts of twelve gorillas. Group 13 is named after its initial population but now boasts of 21 gorillas, with a single silverback gorilla, black backs, juveniles, and infants.

Sabyinyo group presently has ten members and occupies the meadow between the Sabyinyo and Karisoke. The group is led by a dominant silverback, Guhonda. A breakaway group formed by a solitary silverback, Charles, is known as Umubano and currently has a population of nine. This group has its home rage around Visoke, which was formerly the area that Dian Fossey utilized for her research. Kwitonda group was initially habituated on the Congo side of the Volcanoes but has since moved its home range into Rwanda. The group is led by Kwitonda and comprises of some black backs, females, juveniles, and babies.

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