The park was founded in 1925 by King Albert I of Belgium and was originally given his namesake, Albert National Park. Parc Albert was the first national park to be established on the continent of Africa, largely from the tireless lobbying of an American biologist, Carl Akeley, who committed his life to the protection of Virunga’s Landscapes, and who subsequently died and was buried in the Park. It was founded primarily to protect the mountain gorillas living in the forests of the Virunga Massif. Parc Albert was later expanded northward to include the Rwindi Plains, Lake Edward and the Rwenzori “Mountains of the Moon”. The park was renamed Virunga National Park in 1969.
Over the past 20 years, Virunga’s Rangers have endured an almost uninterrupted series of challenges. In 1994, the Rwandan genocide unleashed a flood of more than one million refugees who placed tremendous pressure on the park forests and wildlife. In 2007, members of an illegal charcoal mafia murdered a family of mountain gorillas. The event was arguably the park’s darkest hour in over a decade. Their motivation was simple: kill the mountain gorillas and there will no longer be a reason to protect the park. By the end of the year, nine critically endangered mountain gorillas had been murdered.
In 2008, the ICCN entered into a public-private partnership with VF. ICCN and VF jointly appointed the park director, Emmanuel De Merode, and began a comprehensive turnaround strategy based on rebuilding the ranger corps, professionalizing park management and adopting best-practice corporate governance. This partnership planted the seed for what was to become the Virunga Alliance – an innovative plan to deliver effective economic development and stability for the populations living around the park. The work was largely funded through public and private support, including the European Union and the Howard G Buffet Foundation. Since then, the programs were sustained uninterrupted through two civil wars, but at a considerable cost to the park’s staff.
Peace has returned to Virunga, and once again, the park is open to tourism. New tourist activities are being developed and the park now offers high-end lodging conveniently located near the center of the three main tourist attractions: the mountain gorillas, Tongo chimpanzees, and Nyiragongo volcano.