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The Virunga Mountains are a chain of volcanoes, located between Lake Edward and Lake Kivu. They are located along the northern border of Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Uganda. The mountain range is a branch of the Albertine Rift, a part of the Great Rift Valley.

The mountain range consists of eight major volcanoes. Most of them are dormant, except Mount Nyiragongo 3,462 m (11,358 ft) and Mount Nyamuragira 3,063 m (10,049 ft), both in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Recent eruptions occurred in 2006, and in January, 2010. Mount Karisimbi at 4,507 m (14,787 ft), is the highest volcano. The oldest mountain is Mount Sabyinyo which rises 3,634 m (11,923 ft), above sea level.

Today, transecting the frontiers of Uganda, Rwanda and Congo, the cross-border conservation area is a model of eco-tourism and how it can be used to ensure the survival of endangered wildlife.

National Parks in the Virungas

The Virunga volcano range is made of six volcanoes. (from East to West) Mt. Muhabura (4127 m ), Mt. Gahinga (3474  m) , Mt. Sabyinyo (3634  m )  Mt. Visoke (3711m) Mt. Mikone (4437m) and Mt. Karisimbi (4507m)  a number of smaller, secondary volcanic cones are included in the national park. Only Mt. Mikone is totally situated in the Congo.

Two more volcanoes, Mt. Nyiragongo (3645m) and Mt. Nyamulangira (3058m) are situated some 30km further to the West, in the DRC. They are included in Congo’s Parc National des Virunga but are not considered as being part of the Virunga  range (even if many still as being part of the Virunga Volcanoes). These are two of the most active volcanoes in the world, with  frequent eruptions that sometimes threaten the town of Goma (DRC). Although they are geographically very close to the Virunga volcanoes, scientists consider that are related to a totally  distinct volcanic system, with no connection between them and Virunga. Two of the virunga volcanoes, namely Mt. Mikeno and Mt. Sabyinyo are considered extinct. They are the two oldest and  weathered ones in the range, dating back to some 2 million years.  Their old age is easily indicated by their rugged shape, which totally different from the other volcanoes in the range with their  typical and more or less perfect conical  shapes.

The four other volcanoes in the virunga range are “younger” and considered as dormant (all scientists do not seem to agree and some classify them also as extinct volcanoes). The last major eruptions took place only some 20.000 years ago. These cataclysmic events created a natural dam that elevated Lake  Kivu  to its present elevation of 1.470m and gave it its current size of around 2.200 km2. Volcanic activity is still taking place in the region with, for instance, the presence of  hot water springs near Gisenyi. In 1957, a minor eruption occurred in the Congolese part of the Virunga forest (Mugogo Volcano). It lasted only for a few days but burnt over 100 hectares of forest. Minor tremors, testifying of regular tectonic activity in the area, are common.


All  volcanoes in the Virunga range have been given names by the local people:

  • Muhabura is the “The Guide” as its silhouette can be seen from many parts of Rwanda
  • Mgahinga is “The Hoe” or “pile of stones”
  • Sabyinyo means “Old Tooth” due to its shape
  • Visoke is the “water hole” probably due to the presence of a lake in its crater
  • Karisimbi is the “The Cowry Shell” with reference to the snow that sometimes covers the summit