Virunga Park closure: DR Congo Tourism Now Looks to Kahuzi Biega
Last month, Africa’s oldest national park, the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), was closed to tourists as it goes under a security evaluation following a series of deadly attacks.
The park has recently been beset by violence, with over 12 park rangers reportedly killed by militias and smugglers over the past 11 months. The park is home to the critically endangered mountain gorillas, elephants, chimpanzees and other wildlife.
With the closure of the park comes the big question: What next for tourism in this conflict-ridden region? Many tourists who would have wished to come and visit the park, mostly to trek the mountain gorillas, must now be asking themselves what other alternative attraction they can come and spend their tourist dollars on without looking over their shoulders.
According to Greg Bakunzi, a tour operator in Rwanda and DRC, Kahuzi-Biega National Park, also found in eastern DRC, provides an ideal option for visitors.
Eastern Lowland Gorillas
“There’s relative peace now here and despite the misfortune that befell the Virunga, tourists can still come to these parts and see what eastern DRC has to offer,” says Bakunzi.
Kahuzi-Biega National Park is home to 136 species of mammals, but the most prominent one is the Eastern Lowland Gorilla. These primates have been under constant threat, forcing park authorities to work tirelessly to make sure the species, together with other remaining mammals, are protected.
“Kahuzi-Biega National Park is the last refuge of these rare gorillas, and therefore provides visitors a unique experience to witness in their habitat these incredible animals,” adds Bakunzi, the managing director of Amahoro Tours in Muzanze.
He says there are other primates that can be seen in the park, including, among others, the eastern chimpanzee, the Colobine and Owl-Faced monkeys, together with several mammals.
Security situation remains calm
Bakunzi says that even though Kahuzi-Biega has also been affected by illegal activities like poaching, the security situation remains calm and this makes it conducive for tourists to visit.
According to a 2017 study by Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) published in Science Daily, in the eastern region of the DRC, mining operations have had devastating impacts on wildlife, even within the confines of protected areas such as Kahuzi-Biega National Park and the Itombwe Nature Reserve.
Grauer’s gorilla numbers, according to the findings, have declined by 77 per cent over the past two decades due to hunting, which the presence of mining sites continues to fuel.
Bakunzi says the issue of illegal encroachment into the park needs to be addressed by tourism and conservation stakeholders so that Kahuzi-Biega does not suffer the same fate as Virunga National Park.
“As a company dedicated to tourism, conservation and community development, Amahoro Tours is willing to jointly work with other conservation-focused organizations to find a lasting solution to the poaching menace that threatens the life of animals in the park so that tourism can continue to thrive here,” he adds.
He further says they provide forest guides who escort tourists for the three days in the park while filming the gorillas under habituation, an activity that has become increasingly popular with tourists.
“This is a great service we provide our clients to make them help in supporting the habituation and trekking of the Lowland Gorillas,” he says.
Bakunzi said they are working on proving the Kahuzi-Biega conservation study tour to those who wish to know more about the park.
Park officials optimistic
Chief park warden Dieu Byaombe said they are optimistic that tourism will continue to thrive in the park since they have put in place adequate security measures, including training and employing more rangers to bolster security.
Gloria Mwenge Bitomwa, Kahuzi-Biega’s tourism manager, said though poaching remains a threat to the park, it has become sporadic due to the heavy presence of rangers and anti-poaching sensitization campaign they have been running around the local community to educate them on the benefits of conservation.