The political boundaries separating the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda were established in 1894 at the Conference of Berlin. As is well documented, this ‘scramble for Africa’ largely ignored existing geographical, cultural and ethnic continuities.
Despite current national borders, the Virunga region have a number of similarities. Firstly, the large levels of movement across borders, often driven by conflict, has led to a situation today where ‘similar languages, cultures and traditions are found on all three sides of the borders’.
The region referred to as the Virunga is made up of 3 national parks. These national parks are found in 3 countries. The Virunga Region is made up of three national parks that contain the mountain gorilla’s remaining habitat. Each have national parks that are supposed to protect the habitat of the mountain gorillas. Three contiguous parks cover the Virungas forest block and these are;
- Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda
- Virunga National Park in DR Congo
- Mgahinga National Park in Uganda
The current parks protect remaining fragments of montane rain forest which contain a rich diversity of flora, partly owing to the range of altitudes from 1100 to 4511 metres. A rich diversity of fauna also exists and this might have resulted from the area being a glacial refuge during the late Pleistocene.
As a result of high species richness and endemic, along with high level of threat, IUCN have rated the montane forests of the Albertine Rift as having the highest conservation priority in Africa. Even within the greater Albertine Rift landscape,
the Virungas stand out.
The region is perhaps best known for the mountain gorilla. The 2003 census in the Virunga mountains estimated a population of 380, whilst the 2006 census in Bwindi estimated 340; hence a global population of around 720, an improving but still fragile situation.
The montane forests of Virunga are also important for local and regional livelihoods. Part of this value derives from direct consumption of resources but the larger part is thought to derive from indirect ‘ecosystem services’ such as watershed protection, soil formation and protection, climate regulation and pollination.