Volcanoes National Park also referred to as Parc National des Volcanos in French is situated in north-west of Rwanda sharing a boarder with Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda and Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This protected area is famously known for its mountain gorillas. It also houses five out of eight volcanoes that form the Virunga Highlands. These include; Bisoke, Karisimbi, Muhabura, Sabyinyo and Gahinga.
The first gazettion occurred in 1925 where the land mass surrounded by Visoke, Mikeno and Karisimbi, was allocated with intention to minimise gorilla poaching. This earlier gazettion made it the first national park in Africa. In 1929, the boundaries of this protected area were expanded more into Rwanda and the colonial Congo, forming Albert National Park covering 8090 km², managed by Belgian colonial government who were administering the two colonies. After the independence of the two countries, the park was divided into two though the
Rwandan side had to be reduced in 1969 for pyrethrum growing.
This park was to become the station for the historical Dian Fossey- an American primatologist who dedicated her life to research about gorillas. Arriving in 1967, Karisoke became her research centre which is between Visoke and Karisimbi areas. This research centre is credited for advocating for gorilla conservation, something that took the world by storm in the subsequent years. Though murdered in 1985 under unclear circumstances, her works are still living often depicted in documentaries and films such as the Gorillas in the mist.
Volcanoes national park has a varying vegetation due to altitudinal variations. This include the; lower montane forest though lost to farming (2400 – 2500 m), Neoboutonia forest (2500 – 3200 m), Bamboo forest extending about 30% of the gazetted area. Hagenia-Hypericum forest (2600 – 3600 m), which is one of the Hagenia abyssinica’s largest forests. From (3500-4200 m) the forest largely consists of Lobelia lanurensis, Lobelia wollastonii, and Senecio erici-rosenii. While grassland occurs between 4300 – 4500 m with meadows, Secondary thicket, swamps, marshes, and small lakes exist though on a small scale
Regarding fauna, Volcanoes is well known for Mountain gorillas alongside other mammals like Golden Monkey, black – fronted duiker, spotted hyena, buffalo and bush buck. The elephants have been recorded though not frequently seen. 178 species of birds exist with 13 species and 16 subspecies endemic to Virunga and Rwenzori Mountains.
Mountain gorillas are posterities of ancestral monkeys and apes found in Africa and Arabia during the beginning of the oligocene epoch (34-24 million years ago). The fossil record provides evidence of the hominoid primates (apes) found in east Africa about 18–22 million years ago. The fossil record of the area where mountain gorillas live is particularly poor and thus lacks a clear evolutionary history. It was about 9 million years ago that the group of primates that were to evolve into gorillas split from their common ancestor with humans and chimps; this is when the genus Gorilla emerged. Though the early relative of the gorilla is not certain, it is traced back to the early ape Proconsul africanus. Mountain gorillas have been isolated from eastern lowland gorillas for about 400,000 years and these two taxa separated from their western counterparts approximately 2 million years ago. Though the classification of gorillas’ debate has been considerable, it’s yet unresolved. The genus was first referenced as Troglodytes in 1847, but renamed to Gorilla in 1852. It was not until 1967 that the taxonomist Colin Groves proposed that all gorillas be regarded as one species (Gorilla gorilla) with three sub-species Gorilla gorilla gorilla (western lowland gorilla), Gorilla gorilla graueri (lowland gorillas found west of the Virungas) and Gorilla gorilla beringei (mountain gorillas including, Gorilla beringei found in the Virungas and Bwindi). After the review in 2003, they were divided into two species (Gorilla gorilla and Gorilla beringei) by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). As a result of this candid research in the Virunga area, one can conclusively say that it has formed a b base for gorilla tours in the area.
The gorilla is a shy and, for much of the time, inoffensive, leaf-eating vegetarian— a far cry from the fearsome, aggressive creature depicted in films and comic books worth of visiting while on Uganda Gorilla Safaris. Only when provoked or threatened does it rise to an erect position and beat its cupped hands against its chest in an attempt to intimidate intruders of its territory. They are the largest and most powerful of the apes. Adult males reach an average height of 1.7 m (6 ft.) and weigh from 140 to 275 kg. Females are about 40 to 50% smaller. Both males and females are tremendously powerful, possessing the ability to tear branches from bushes and uproot small trees. They spend their days quietly, either in a leisurely search for food, or resting in the warm sun.
Volcanoes national park is gifted with a good number of these endangered mountain gorillas and various gorilla families forge their survival in this verdant volcanic area. These gorilla families are in two categories that is; Study groups available to scientists and researchers and tracking groups available to tourists.
Study groups include; Beetsme, and Pablo’s Shida’s with the highest number of individuals. Tourism tracking groups’ number to ten including;
Susa -A Family
This family has 28 members with 3 Silverbacks. Formerly, it was the biggest gorilla group with 42 individuals attracting a lot of studies by Dian Fossey before splitting into two. The group is named after the River of Susa of which they live along. The young twins of Impano and Byishimo make this group famous because of their playful and jumpy behaviours. This group spend much of its time in low levels of the forest compared to the Susa B family which dwells at an altitude of (4507M) on the slopes of Karisimbi Volcano.
Karisimbi Family (Susa-B Family)
This group is a renegade of the former Susa group (Susa-A) and is currently named Susa-B or Karisimbi group. The group has 15 individuals and dwells in the slopes of Karisimbi – the highest Rwandan peak. Being on higher altitude, the group is suitable for enthusiastic hikers stretching to a whole day trekking experience.
This group has 9 members with 2 Silverbacks and is one of the groups that can be easily accessible in Volcanoes Park. The strongest silverback is Guhonda and the group dwells in the gentle slopes between Mount Gahinga and Sabyinyo
Amahoro the local dialect literally meaning peaceful is a crown name of this group. The group is led by a calm silverback called Ubumwe (literally meaning Unity). The family comprises of 17 members with one Silverback. Trekking this gorilla group requires enduring a relatively steep climb generating a memorable trekking encounter.
Group 13 (Agashya Family).
Agashya is the family’s second name. The group had 13 members at the time of habituation deriving its name from its number though it has since then expanded to 25 individuals. It is headed by Agashya – the dominant silverback. This silverback is known for protecting his members from all external attacks and under powerful conditions, he can take them to the top of the Volcanoes for protection. Agashya took over from Nyakirima – the former head of the family.
This family has 18 individuals and 2 silverbacks. It tends to migrate from Democratic Republic of Congo. The dominant silverback is called Kwitonda literally meaning the humble one. As a result of the inter boarder migrations, the group tends to provide long trekking distance creating difficulty.
This group split from Amahoro group and is headed by the Silverback called Charles. Disagreements between Charles and Ubumwe led to the split of the former group after several fights. Charles managed to gather a few females and created his own group. The group now has 9 individuals with 1 Silverback.
With 12 members and 1 silverback, this family arouse from groups of gorillas 13 and Sabyinyo plus other gorillas. Hirwa a local dialect meaning the lucky one, has a silverback from the former Susa group. It was opened for tracking in 2006 and regardless of being new it is an established group with a position among other gorilla families.
This family is located in Karisimbi region of Rwanda. It consists of 11 gorillas with 2 silverbacks. It tends to move from one area to another explaining its name Ugenda which means being on the move. Thus trekking sometimes gets prolonged as locating the group may not come too easily.
The family has 11 individuals with Silverback. It can be located from the Karisoke Volcano slopes. The dominant silverback is called Bwenge who formed this group in 2007. The group underwent difficult times after losing 6 infants however it has grown b overtime with two positive births. Trekking this group is a bit challenging with a 3 hour hike over 600m in height.
Holding the famous endangered mountain gorillas aside; Volcanoes National Park has a variety of wild life worth encountering on this Rwanda Gorilla Safari. They include; golden monkey (Cercopithecus mitis kandti), buffalo (Syncerus caffer), black-fronted duiker (Cephalophus niger), bushbuck (Tragelaphus scriptus), Spotted Hyena (Crocuta crocuta). The also has some elephants however they are not seen frequently.
Volcanoes National Park provides shelter to over of 178 species of birds including; Archer’s ground robin, the francolins, dusky crimson-wing, red-faced woodland warbler, Rwenzori turaco, Rwenzori double collared sunbird, collared apalis, strange weaver and the Rwenzori batis. Of the 178 recorded species of birds, over 13 species plus other 16 subspecies are endemic to the Virunga and Ruwenzori Mountains only.
Volcanoes National Park contains over five of eight Volcanoes of the Virunga Mountains which include: Karisimbi (4507m), Bisoke (3711m), Muhabura (4127m), Gahinga (3474m) and Sabyinyo (3634m). These mountains present a great scenic view with their slopes covered by verdant vegetation rooted in the fertile volcanic soils.
Mountain Gorilla tracking / trekking.
Gorilla trekking start in the morning from the park Headquarters at about 07:30 hours. Undergo briefing by the park staff and get a gorilla family to track for the day. Some gorilla families are found on the gradients of Virunga volcanoes requiring physical fitness as trekking may be physically demanding. The trek experience usually commences in the farmed bases of the Volcanoes before rising up the verdant thick misty forests. The experience can stretch between 2 – 5 hours considering the whereabouts of the gorilla family. Eight trekkers are allowed to track each gorilla family per day while a maximum of one hour encounter with gorillas is provided. 15 years is the minimum tracking age in Rwanda and a gorilla permit in Rwanda costs USD 750 per person.
Encounter various bird species in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park. Over 178 bird species have been recorded and can be seen on this Rwanda safari. Birds like; Archer’s ground robin, francolins, Rwenzori turaco, dusky crimson-wing, red-faced woodland warbler, Rwenzori double collared sunbird, Rwenzori batis, strange weaver and the collared apalis.
Volcanoes national park is also a good destination for hiking. Hiking the Karisimbi which takes 2 days requires the trekkers to dress appropriately as well as good camping equipment. You can also try out a shorter option of Mount Visoke taking over 2 hours. Visit the local humanitarian projects or scenic landscape and its societies without neglecting Karisoke Research centre and Dian Fossey’s grave.
Mountain Gorilla View Lodge
Located over 15 minutes’ drive from Volcanoes national Park entrance. The lodge offers a flawless ground for tourists interested in Mountain gorilla trekking and Golden Monkey tracking. It has 30 individual cottages, bar and restaurant all with good sights over the environs.
This Guest House is located in the District of Kinigi – north eastern Rwanda over 11 Km from City of Ruhengeri. The accommodation facility can contain over 40 people and the rooms have warm water and electricity. It is on the doorway to the magnificent splendour of the volcanic mountain range, the dwelling of the endangered mountain gorillas.
Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge
The lodge is close to the park Headquarters and takes a few minutes’ drive. This lodge has six cottages and two suites that flourish in magnificent gardens, with private verandas, en-suite bathrooms, sitting rooms overlooking fireplaces.
Virunga Lodge is a luxurious accommodation facility situated with in one hour’s drive from the park Headquarters. It contains 8 spacious chalets featuring large private veranda.
Volcanoes National Park primehost