Virunga massif is a massive chain of 8 volcanoes that run along the borders of south western Uganda, Northern Rwanda and Eastern Democratic republic of Congo. Of the 8 volcanoes, 2 are active which include Mount Nyiragongo and Mount Nyamuragira found in eastern DR Congo. The rest 6 are dormant volcanoes and include Mount Karisimibi, Mount Bisoke and Muhabura in Rwanda and Mount Gahinga, Sabinyo and Muhabura in Uganda.
Virunga massifs are also known as Virunga conservation Area is one of the biologically diverse areas. It is a habitat for the critically endangered mountain gorillas. This area includes 4 national parks home to around 604 gorillas. They include volcanoes national park in Rwanda, Mgahinga gorilla national park in Uganda and Virunga national park in eastern DR Congo.
Mountain gorillas are the main attractions in the region. Gorilla tourism authorities include Uganda Wildlife Authority, Rwandan development Board and Virunga National Park have partnerships with the local communities.
Community tourism is much linked to the development of gorilla tourism in the Virunga massif. In each of the above national parks, gorilla trekking safaris gives tourists an authentic encounter with mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. However, one of the highlights of a gorilla trekking safari in the Virunga is the chance to interact with the local people through a village tour.
Gorilla trekking costs $600 in Uganda $1500 in Rwanda and $450 in Congo allowing to generate revenue that is shared and distributed in the rural communities mainly living adjacent to Mgahinga gorilla national park, Volcanoes national park and Virunga national park.
The communities include the Bakiga, Bafumbira and BaTwa whose culture, art and crafts, food are unique. The BaTwa are indigenous and still cherish their old traditions of the forest hunter gather lifestyles. Population density is high due to high birth rates. For example 4 million people live adjacent to Virunga national park alone. Poverty levels are high and people depend on natural resources mainly through subsistence farming.
Community tourism includes various strategies aimed to create alternative resource to tackle the challenge on how to reduce poverty and create awareness on wildlife conservation.
Local communities around the parks of Mgahinga, Virunga and volcanoes in Rwanda, run tourism enterprises that provide services such as village walks, cultural tours, farm tours, nature walks, and cultural performances and accommodation.
In addition, locals earn income to feed their families through presenting hand-made souvenirs, selling agriculture produce such as honey bee, fruits and vegetables.
Visiting the local communities, the day starts with a gorilla trek early morning followed by a village visit in the afternoon. In the evening, a campfire can be placed at the lodge where you get a very relaxed entertainment as locals perform their traditional dances, story tell and it is pretty much fun.
There are several ways to undertake a visit into the communities.
Visiting the BaTwa trail in Mgahinga gorilla national park
BaTwa are the oldest tribes of civilization living in the forests of Virunga massif as hunter gathers and warriors. However their culture forest living habits haven’t been well preserved following their eviction in 1993 to gazette Mgahinga gorilla national park for gorilla conservation. BaTwa today seem to be adopting the modern lifestyle than their former forest hunter warrior lifestyles. BaTwa trail in Mgahinga is the place to experience the traditional culture of the BaTwa.
The BaTwa guides take you in the forest as they demonstrate how they used to hunt and make fire using dry sticks and grass. They also explain the various plants and how they used them as food and to cure diseases. At the end of the BaTwa trail, you reach the Garama caves which were the main residence of their kingdom. The BaTwa will give you their traditional performance show with storytelling, dancing, and singing.
BaTwa trail is an enlightening tour where you get to see how BaTwa used to live. They are friendly and proceeds from this tour go straight into helping the families.
Visiting the Iby’iwacu cultural village in volcanoes national park Rwanda
Iby’iwacu cultural village is located outside volcanoes national park in Rwanda. The center was put up to preserve Rwandan culture through which to earn income and eradicate poverty. Locals who were involved in poaching have changed to farmers. Iby’iwacu showcases Rwandan indigenous culture that will make you appreciate an authentic African cultural experience.
Walks and boat and canoe rides around Twin lakes near volcanoes national park – Rwanda
The Twin lakes of Burera and Ruhondo are located near volcanoes national park. It is actually along the route from Rwanda to south western Uganda providing a great stopover before or after gorilla safari. The lakes are surrounded by the Virunga Mountains and forests with birds and primates. Visitors can take half or full day excursions. Canoeing and boat rides on the lakes offer the best views of the Virunga massifs as you navigate terraced islands on the lake. Birders can enjoy species such as fish eagles, kingfisher, ducks and many more. There are some restaurants and camps on the shores where you can eat fish and relax.
Community owned lodges
Lodges that are operated by local community organizations are using the profits earned from hosting tourists to support development in the community. Choosing to stay at one of the lodges you are sure the money is going back to the locals. Some of the lodges include Sabinyo silverback lodge in volcanoes national park.
Gorilla naming ceremony
The Rwandan gorilla naming ceremony also known as Kwita Izina is a government initiative aimed at monitoring the number of gorillas. It is fully dedicated to the improvement of livelihoods. The event takes place annually since 2005 it creates awareness among the locals an international community the need to conserve and protect gorillas.