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The Virunga Mountains also known as the Virunga Volcanoes are a series of eight volcanic mountains along the northern border of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. This chain of volcanoes stretch from the Rwenzori Mountains to border of Uganda and Rwanda. Also known as the Mufumbiro Ranges, these volcanoes extend over about 50 miles (80 km) along the borders of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda. The range runs east-west, perpendicular to the rift valley in which lie Lakes Kivu and Edward.

They are located between Lake Edward and Lake Kivu. The name Virunga is an English version  of the Kinyarwanda word Ibirunga which means volcanoes. The mountain range consists of eight major volcanoes. Most of them are dormant except mountain Nyaragongo 3,462 meters {11,358 ft}and  mount Nyamuragira 3,063 meters {10,049 ft} both in the DRC. Recent eruptions occurred in 2006 in January 2010. Mount Karisimbi is the highest volcano at 4,507 meters{14,787 ft} The oldest mountain is Mt. Sabyinyo, which rises 3,634 meters {11,923} above sea level.

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.

The Virunga Mountains are home of the critically endangered mountain gorilla listed on the IUCN Red list  of endangered species due to habitat loss, poaching, diseases and wars. The Karisoke Research Centre founded by Dian Fossey to observe gorillas in the native habitat is located between Mt. Bisoke.

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 Volcanoes

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.


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

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.

Quick Facts

  • Of the Virunga Volcanoes, Karisimbi is the highest rising to an elevation of 14,787 feet (4,507 metres).
  • Two of the eight Virunga volcanoes are active i.e Nyiragongo and Nyamulagira while the remaining six are dormant.
  • The Virunga Mountains protect mountain gorillas and these great apes only inhabit the ranges of the dormant volcanoes.

The Virunga mountains are a chain of volcanoes in East Africa, along the Northern border of Rwanda,  the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Uganda. The mountain range is a branch of the Albertine Rift mountains which border the Western branch of the East African Rift.

The  following  are  the  different  mountains  found  in  the  Virunga mountain  range.  Mt. Karisimbi, Mt. Mikeno, Mt.Muhabura, Mt. Bisoke, Mt. Sabyinyo ,Mt. Gahinga , Mt. Nyirangongo , Mt. Nyamuragira. All  the  above  mountains  are  dormant  and therefore  do  not  erupt  expect  Mt. Nyirangongo  and  Mt. Nyamuragira . These  two  mountains  are  found   in  the  Democratic  Republic  of  Congo  they  are  very  active  and  therefore  erupt.  Virunga  National  park  covers  an  area  of  7,90,000  comprising  an  outstanding  diversity  of  habitats  ranging  from  swamps  and  steppes  to  the  show fields  of  Rwenzori  at  an  altitude  of  over  5,000m and  from  Lava  plains  to  the  Savannahs  on  the  slopes  of  volcanoes. Mountain  gorillas  are  found  in  the  park. Some  20,000  hippopotamuses  live  in  the  rivers  and  birds  from  Siberia  spend  the  winter  there.

The  Virunga  mountains  enjoy  a pleasant  climate  with  an  average  daytime  temperatures  around  10 degrees Celsius ( 50 f ) and  1,000m ( 40 in )  of  rain  annually. Five  peaks  in  Rwanda  and  three in the  DRC  rise  above  the  timberline. Winds  blowing  against  the  slopes  are  forced  upwards  into  cooler  air, creating  an  almost  constant  mist. This  moisture  has  fostered  a  rain  forest  of  hagenia  trees, shrubs, mosses  and  linchens  climbing  as  high  as  3,400m ( 11,000 ft ). The  virunga  mountains  are  most  renowned  as  the  habitat  of  mountain  gorillas, vegetarian  primates  who  live  in  groups  of  up  to  30  larger  and  more  densely  coated  than  lowland  gorillas, they  can  attain  a  height  of   1.8m (6ft ) and  weight  of  200kg ( 440 lbs. ) . Their   endangered  status  was  brought to  worldwide  attention  by  American  zoologist  Dian  Fossey  who  was  killed  in  her  camp  near  Visoke  in  Rwanda  on  December  26th 1985.

The  150sq km ( 60 sq km ) volcanoes  national  park  in  Rwanda  contains  the  most  beautiful  areas  of  the  Virunga, including  volcan  Karisimbi  high  altitude  crater  lakes  at  Visoke  and  Ngezi, and  other  mountains  including  Gahinga  ( 3,474m/11,398 ft ), Sabyinyo ( 4,127m/13,540 ft ). Across  the  border  in  the  DRC, the 8,090sq km ( 3,120 sq km ) Virunga  National  park, the  oldest  wildlife  park  in  Africa ( founded  in  1925)  includes  the  Djomba  Gorilla  sanctuary, Rutshuru  warerfalls  and  the  hot  springs  of  Mgi  ya  moto. In  southern  Uganda, a  gorilla  sanctuary  has  also  been  established.
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.