Virunga National Park is a beautiful place, and was recognized early on for its great variety and natural splendor, when it became Africa’s first National Park. During the 70’s it became famous and many travelers from Europe ventured out to the savanna’s of the central sector of Virunga. The gorillas were not yet famous at the time, but the park had (and has) much more to offer than only the gorillas. During the latter part of Mobutu’s reign, the parks facilities started to crumble and Virunga’s tourism lost a lot of its appeal, although more people started to visit the gorillas in Jomba, Bikenge and Bukima. Then in the 90’s the Rwandan genocide spilled over into Eastern Congo and the flood of refugees combined with armed conflict in the region made Virunga completely inaccessible and the pressure on its resources increased enormously with the refugees around the edges of the forest.
Miraculously Virunga pulled though, able to maintain most of its boundaries (although the original buffer zones were largely lost), however park management was unable to regain full control and corruption was rife, which eventually came to a climax in July 2007 when multiple gorillas were murdered in an attempt to make the park fail completely and give free reign to those who wanted to exploit the park for its natural resources (primarily charcoal). Read the National Geographic story here
From the ashes of the incident arose a new park management, under the charismatic leadership of Emmanuel de Merode. Many people in the conservation community had all but given up on Virunga by this point, and the ambition levels of Emmanuel and his team seemed unrealistic at this early stage. However in the years that followed, Virunga regained structure, by clear direction in its conservation strategy, new and highly trained Rangers, better equipment (largely funded by the EU).
In 2009 the first tourists slowly started coming back, and the park started to develop a bold strategy to kickstart tourism again by investing in high-end tourism facilities & services. Tourism was (and is) a highly tangible industry that can provide a lot of jobs in all levels of a society and as such is a favorable industry for communities to see the value of the National Park, which is an essential component of any National Park’s chance of survival.
We at Inspired Journeys believe strongly in the Conservation strategy deployed in Virunga, and wish we could bring everyone to Virunga to see the efforts and the impact that you can have as a traveler. Two of the founders of Inspired Journeys worked at Virunga during this exciting period and saw first hand what was being achieved and the enormous untapped potential the park still offers. By spending a couple of nights you can meet Virunga staff and rangers and learn more about these conservation efforts (which go much further than tourism). And also learn about the great sacrifices many of the Virunga Team have had to suffer to make Virunga what it is today.
How does your travel benefit Virunga?
When booking a trip to Virunga with us, we ensure we use as many of the services of the Park as we can. That means that a very large component of your travel cost go directly to the park and funds their operation. This includes for instance sleeping in Mikeno Lodge, where instead of financing a large hotel corporation the profits of this lodge go 100% into the parks operational costs, which is essential for the parks future. All your park fees (e.g. your gorilla permits) are paid to the Congolese Institute of Conservation (ICCN), these funds are Partially (30%) used for community projects, the park supervisors are more than happy to show you around for you to see the funds being put to good use. The remainder is used for Funding Virunga as well as the conservation of other parks in Congo that have less access to financial resources. Besides the direct financial impact, possibly even more important is job creation and possibility for young people in the areas around Virunga to find long term employment and a positive outlook to the future. Which is an essential part of rebuilding a broken region, and as such is essential for the future of Virunga.