The eminent primatologist Dian Fossey once wrote: 'In the heart of Central Africa, so high up that you shiver more than you sweat are great, old volcanoes towering up almost 15,000 feet, and nearly covered with rich, green rainforest - the Virungas'.
The Virunga are a chain of mostly dormant volcanoes lying along Rwanda's northern border with DR Congo and Uganda. They form a branch of the Albertine Rift Valley and their lower slopes are covered by a montane forest. The Volcanoes National Park encompasses 5 of the 8 Virunga volcanoes i.e Karisimbi, Bisoke, Muhabura, Gahinga and Sabyinyo.
Created in 1925, Volcanoes National park was one of the first national parks to be opened in Africa. Its conception rose from the need to protect the park's most precious inhabitants: the mountain gorillas. However, the conservation laws surrounding these magnificent creatures were ignored by poachers for decades, who bribed park rangers for the chance to hunt the park's gentle giants.
It was not until the 1970's and 1980's that things started to turn around with the intervention of the world-famous zoologist Dian Fossey. Her passion for the gorillas and her exemplary levels of understanding and interaction ushered in a new era of conservation for the mountain gorillas and ultimately saved them from extinction. She set up the Karisoke Research Centre and fought hard to stop poaching; opposing the corruption corroding the park's staff. Fossey managed to create a swell of interest and encourage a greater awareness of the park's famous residents. She was murdered in 1985 and is buried close to the Research Centre, among the graves of gorillas killed by poachers.
Aside from its vivid backstory, it is the park's wildlife and location that make a Volcanoes National Park safari such a life altering experience. There is a great diversity of terrain, with swamps, marshes, grasslands and lakes coupled with a variety of forest, ranging from bamboo to montane. In terms of fauna, naturally it is the mountain gorilla that steals the spotlight but there are many other animals of interest as well. From spotted hyena and golden monkeys to buffalo and black-fronted duiker, the park has a flourishing ecosystem added to by a recorded 178 bird species.
Besides the obvious gorilla tracking there is plenty of adventure to be had in the park, with nature walks and mountain climbing being at the fore of choice. One of the most popular activities is tracking the endangered golden monkeys. An interesting addition to any trip is a visit to the nearby ex-poacher's village. This is an award-winning conversation initiative where former poachers have given up their old ways and become conservation activists. Visitors are taught about traditional skills and shown cultural dances. This can be a very interactive, educational and fun experience for all ages.
With a history interspersed by facets of human and animal tragedy and triumph alike, there is an indescribable aura that exudes from the Virungas, resonating with those who visit as an utterly unquenchable thirst for more.
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