The Virunga Volcanoes encompass three National Parks in three countries of eastern Central Africa: Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda, Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda (Fig. 18.1). This region harbors one of only two remaining populations of mountain gorillas, 380 “Virunga” gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei). The Virungas cover an area of about 425 km2 and contain a variety of afromontane habitats, stratified by altitude ranging from 1850 m to 4507 m above sea level. Much of this high altitude vegetation is not suitable for the gorillas (Weber and Vedder,1983), thus the gorilla population is concentrated below 3400 m in the mid-altitude Hagenia–Hypericum zone and the lower altitude bamboo zone.
The first National Park in Africa was created in 1925, specifically to protect the mountain gorillas. These magnificent beasts received little attention until 1959, by which time they were thought to number only 400–500 individuals (Schaller, 1963). Following a pioneering study by George Schaller, long-term research and conservation efforts began in 1967 when Dian Fossey established the Karisoke Research Center in Rwanda. Fossey's study was initiated along the same lines as Jane Goodall's research on chimpanzees at Gombe in Tanzania, after a meeting with the famous paleoanthropologist, Dr. Louis Leakey.
By the 1970s, the Volcanoes National Park had been reduced to 46% of its original size, so that only 160 km2 of forest remained in Rwanda.