Volcanoes National Park, situated in Rwanda, proudly serves as one of the homes to the remaining population of mountain gorillas in the world.
Additionally, This Rwandan national park harbors five of the eight famous volcanic ranges in the Virunga Massif, which stretch across the Albertine Rift Valley, a part of the Great East African Rift Valley.
Volcanoes National Park is also home to several other wildlife apart from mountain gorillas, and some of these include bushbucks, bush pigs, buffalos, elephants, forest hogs, golden monkeys, black-fronted duiker, black and white colobus monkeys, and olive baboons, to mention a few.
Volcanoes National Park is bordered by Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda and Virunga National Park in Congo, both of which are also home to the enchanting mountain gorillas, monkeys, forest elephants, and many other primates.
Volcanoes National Park covers an area of 160 square kilometers.
She established an institute that still stands to this day, known as the Karisoke Research Institute.
History of Volcanoes National Park
Volcanoes National Park was part of Albert National Park, established in 1925 to protect the endangered mountain gorillas.
It comprises areas of Mount Karasimbi, Mount Bisoke, and Mount Mikeno.
The park’s boundaries were extended to Belgian Congo in 1929, covering 8090 square kilometers.
In 1958, 700 hectares of the park’s land were cleared for human settlement, and more areas of the park were cleared around the 1960s to 1973 to grow pyrethrum.
In 1967, the famous American primatologist known as Dian Fossey arrived at the park for research and the study of mountain gorillas.
Dian Fossey founded the Karisoke Research Institute in Ruhengeri province within the areas of Mount Karisimbi and Mount Bisoke.
This is how the institute came to be called Karisoke, by combining the first four letters of Mount Karisimbi and the last four letters of Mount Bisoke.
The institute covered an area of 25 square kilometers, and the locals nicknamed Dian Fossey “Nyirmachabelli,” which is translated to mean “the woman who lives alone in the mountains.”
Fossey conducted extensive research and studies about mountain gorillas and appeared on the cover of National Geographic magazine in 1970.
Although poaching had been illegal since the formation of Albert National Park, the park staff and rangers did not effectively enforce the anti-poaching laws.
As a result, many mountain gorillas were killed for bushmeat, and others were transported to zoos in other countries.
Dominant silverback gorillas and mothers protecting their infants would fight with their lives for their family members, often resulting in the death of family members when an infant was attacked.
Dian Fossey created the Digit Fund to help combat the problem of poaching, and within four months, 987 poachers’ traps were destroyed around the Karisoke Research Institute areas.
When Dian Fossey’s favorite gorilla was killed, her determination to protect mountain gorillas grew stronger.
Sadly, she was brutally murdered on December 27, 1985.
Her work greatly contributed to the conservation efforts that allow us to trek mountain gorillas today.
In 1992, the park headquarters was attacked, buildings were burnt, and several park rangers and staff were killed.
The park was also greatly affected by the 1994 Rwanda civil wars, leading to its closure and the abandonment of the research center until 1999.
Although there have been occasional infiltration by Rwandan rebels over the years, they have always been suppressed by the Rwandan army, and the park is now safe for tourism.
What to do – Top Things to do in Volcanoes Park
The main activity done in Volcanoes National Park is gorilla trekking. Gorilla trekking in Volcanoes National Park Rwanda is apparently the most accessible experience among the rest.
Gorilla Trekking in Rwanda
To go mountain gorilla trekking in Rwanda, you’ll first need to obtain a mountain gorilla trekking permit, which costs $1500.
However, discounted permits are available at $1050 in May and November if you spend more than three days in the country and visit one of the other national parks.
For an authentic gorilla trekking experience, you must ensure that you have the necessary gorilla trekking gear.
Most of these items are essential, especially during the rainy season.
Even in the dry season, occasional showers can occur, so it’s important to pack waterproof hiking boots, gardening gloves, insect repellent, sunglasses, hats, long-sleeved clothes, raincoats, rain jackets, warm clothing, and other necessary items.
Gorilla trekking begins early in the morning with a briefing at the park headquarters about mountain gorillas and the rules and regulations of gorilla trekking.
Visitors will also be assigned to mountain gorilla families based on their age and physical condition.
Older or less physically fit individuals will be allocated to nearby mountain gorilla families, while energetic and physically fit young people will be assigned to more distant mountain gorilla families.
After the briefing and allocation of mountain gorilla families, you will embark on your trek in search of the mountain gorilla family, accompanied by an armed ranger guide who will assist you throughout the process.
The trekking can take anywhere from 1 to 3 hours, depending on the location of the mountain gorilla family and the pace of the hikers.
Tourists with infectious diseases like flu or cough will not be allowed to trek with the gorillas, as they could transmit these diseases, which could be detrimental to the gorillas’ health given their weakened immune systems.
When tourists locate the gorilla family they are trekking to see, they have the privilege of watching, studying, observing, and taking photos.
The ranger guide will provide insights into the family’s origin and answer any questions about mountain gorillas and their habitat.
Volcanoes National Park is also a birdwatcher’s paradise, with 178 species of birds recorded, including 13 species and 26 subspecies endemic to the region.
Some examples of birds in the park include Grauer’s swamp warbler, Rwenzori turaco, Rwenzori double-collared sunbird, Archer’s Robin chat, handsome francolin, Scarlett-tufted malachite sunbird, Dusky turtle dove, Dusky crimson wing, Baglafecht Weaver, African long-eared owl, brown-necked parrot, Doherty’s bush shrike, red-faced woodland warbler, strange weaver, and Rwenzori nightjar, among others.
Mountain Gorilla Families in Volcanoes National Park
Volcanoes National Park is home to over 15 mountain gorilla families that roam the foothills of the Virunga Mountains in the park.
You will visit these groups on your Rwanda gorilla trekking tours.
Below are some of the most popular gorilla groups in the park:
- Bwenge Gorilla Family: Bwenge mountain gorilla family gets its name from a local word meaning “wisdom.” This is the group that featured in the movie “Gorillas in the Mist.” Bwenge gorilla family was formed when the dominant silverback, Bwenge, broke away from his family in 2007 to form his group. You can trek Bwenge gorilla family from the slopes of Karisoke, located between Mount Karasimbi and Mount Bisoke.
- Ugenda Gorilla Family: The Ugenda mountain gorilla family derives its name from a local word meaning “on the move.” This family is known for constantly moving from place to place, making it challenging to track. The group wanders around Karisimbi slopes and consists of 11 members, including two silverbacks.
- Hirwa Gorilla Family: Hirwa mountain gorilla family was formed by combining members who split off from the Sabinyo gorilla family and the Agashya gorilla family. This family is fortunate to have a set of twins born in 2011.
- Kwitonda Gorilla Family: Kwitonda mountain gorilla family can be trekked on the mountain slopes of Mount Muhabura. The group’s name comes from the dominant silverback called Kwitonda, which means “Humble one.” The group is said to have migrated from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
- Agashya Gorilla Family: Agashya gorilla family, also known as Group 13, is dominated by Agashya, the silverback who took over leadership from Nyakarima silverback. The group can be trekked around Mount Sabinyo, and Agashya is known for leading his family into higher slopes when sensing danger.
- Sabyinyo Gorilla Family: The name Sabinyo means “old worn out teeth” in the local language. The group derives its name from Mount Sabinyo, one of the Virunga ranges. Sabinyo mountain gorilla family is dominated by Guhonda, the famous reigning silverback and the heaviest silverback in Volcanoes National Park. The group inhabits the slopes of Mount Sabinyo and Mount Gahinga and is one of the easiest gorilla families to trek in the park.
- Umubano Gorilla Family: Umubano gorilla family was formed when Charles broke away from his natal group after several fights with Ubumwe, who dominated the group. The group’s name means “Living together” and is composed of 13 members and two silverbacks.
- Amahoro Gorilla Family: Amahoro mountain gorilla family can be trekked from the slopes of Mount Bisoke. The group’s name means “peace.” It is one of the most peaceful families in Volcanoes, although they lost some of their members to the Umubano gorilla family.
- Karisimbi Gorilla Family: Karisimbi mountain gorilla family, also known as Susa B family, broke away from the Susa A mountain gorilla family in 2008. This is the most challenging family to trek in Rwanda, inhabiting the higher slopes of Mount Karisimbi. The group consists of 16 members with 2 silverbacks.
- Susa A Gorilla Family: The Susa A gorilla family was one of the most interesting gorilla families in Rwanda, with 42 members at the time of habituation before the group separated. This group was thoroughly studied by Dian Fossey and was one of the lucky families to have twins named Impano and Bwishimo. The group can be trekked around Susa River on the mountain slopes of River Karisimbi.
- Titus Gorilla Family: The Titus mountain gorilla family is one of the groups that were researched by Dian Fossey. The dominating silverback lost his family, including his father, to poachers. Dian Fossey indicated that he had difficulties in breathing and seemed underdeveloped but overcame all that. The group gets its name from the silverback Titus.
Booking Rwanda Gorilla Permits
A gorilla permit is a card issued to allow a person to trek mountain gorillas in the wilderness.
Permits can be obtained through a trusted local tour operator or through the Rwanda Development Board.
Rwanda gorilla permits will only be issued to persons of 15 years and above.
All travelers intending to trek mountain gorillas at Volcanoes National Park are advised to obtain their permits at least 3 months in advance, especially during the peak season when there is high demand.
This is because you might end up traveling to the country hoping to acquire a permit at the last minute, and there’s no availability.
Once you secure your gorilla permit, you can then book your flights and come to the country.
Make sure you carry your permit because you will be asked to present it on the morning of the trek.
Clients showing any signs of illness, especially flu, cough, and other related sicknesses, will not be allowed to trek gorillas.
Rwanda offers the most expensive mountain gorilla trekking experience, with permits costing $1500 per person per trek, compared to Uganda where permits cost $700 and Congo where they cost $400.
This makes Rwanda a luxury gorilla trekking destination, as permits are more expensive.
However, you can still experience budget gorilla trekking in Rwanda.
Rwanda also offers low season discounted gorilla permits in May and November.
To obtain a discounted gorilla permit in Rwanda, you need to stay in the country for at least three days and must visit one of the other Rwandan national parks apart from Volcanoes National Park.
The discounted permits cost $1050 per person per trek.
Is there gorilla habituation in Volcanoes National Park?
Gorilla habituation is the process of training mountain gorillas to get used to human presence.
This is typically done for a period of 2-3 years by researchers, conservationists, scientists, and rangers who continuously monitor and study each individual in the group.
Later, they give names based on the behaviors and personalities of each individual. Before mountain gorillas can be trekked, they have to undergo a mock exercise, and if they pass, they will be ready for trekking.
Rwanda only offers gorilla trekking and not gorilla habituation.
The fascinating gorilla habituation experience can only be done in the Rushaga sector of Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park in Uganda.
When to visit PNV
Gorilla trekking can be done all year round in Rwanda, but some months are better than others.
The best time to visit Rwanda is during the short dry season from December to early February and the long dry months from June to September.
Visiting mountain gorillas during the wet season can be challenging, as the roads to the park become impassable, and the trekking trails are muddy and slippery.
Temperatures in Rwanda average around 22°C, dropping to 12°C at night.
The annual rainfall ranges from 1000 to 2000 mm.
To secure gorilla permits during the peak season, it is advisable to acquire them at least 3 months in advance of the trekking date due to high demand.
Getting there – Location of Volcanoes National Park
Volcanoes National Park is situated in the northwestern part of Rwanda, bordering Virunga National Park in Congo and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda.
Accommodation – Where to Stay
There are several accommodation options in Volcanoes National Park, including Five Volcanoes Boutique Hotel, Sabinyo Silverback Lodge, Mountain Gorillas Nest Lodge, Bisate Lodge, Virunga Lodge, Best View Hotel, Mountain Gorilla View Lodge, Da Vinci Gorilla Lodge, Garden Place Hotel, La Bambou Gorilla Lodge, Gorillas Volcanoes Hotel, Villa Gorilla, La Bambou Gorilla Lodge, Gate Hotel, Kinigi Guest House, La Palme Hotel, Gorillas Nest Lodge, Hotel Muhabura, Ruzizi Tented Camp, Karenge Bush Camp, Sabinyo Silverback Lodge, Faraja Hotel, Garden Place Hotel, Gorilla Solution Lodge, and many others.
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