The Greater Virunga Landscape is one of the most biodiverse landscapes in the World, if not the most biodiverse. Containing three World Heritage Sites (Virunga, Rwenzori Mountains and Bwindi Impenetrable National Parks) one Ramsar Site (Lake George and Edward) and one Man and Bisophere Reserve (Queen Elizabeth National Park) it has been recognized as an area of global importance. Virunga National Park forms the backbone of this landscape and connects to the Volcanoes Park in Rwanda together with the Mgahinga Gorilla, Queen Elizabeth, Rwenzori Mountains, and Semuliki National Parks in Uganda. These parks in turn connect to Kibale National Park, Kasyoha-Kitomi, Kalinzi and Renzori Forest Reserves, and Kigezi, and Kyambura Wildlife Reserves. Bwindi Impenetrable National park, Sarambwe Reserve and Echuya Forest Reserve are often considered part of this landscape although they are no longer connected to the main part of the landscape by natural habitat.
About 88% of the natural habitat in this landscape is protected with the possibility of expanding the landscape to the north to include an existing corridor of forest between Virunga Park and the Mt Hoyo Reserve in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The landscape contains a wide diversity of habitats because of its wide range in altitude from 5,100 metres a.s.l. in the Rwenzori Massif to 600 metres in the lowland forests of Semuliki. The landscape also contains two of Africa’s most productive lakes, Lake George and Edward, which are important for fisheries that sustain people living in the landscape. Species of conservation concern in this landscape include the World population of mountain gorillas, chimpanzee, elephant, what was once the largest population of hippopotamus in the world, Red colobus monkey, Golden monkey, lion, spotted hyaena, leopard, golden cat, Rwenzori duiker, Rwenzori Otter Shrew, Rwenzori tauraco, Green broadbill, Grauer’s Rush Warbler, Shelley’s crimsonwing, and reptiles such as the Rwenzori Strange-nosed chamaeleon.
The total number of mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian and plant species recorded from this landscape to date number 5,164, of which 211 species are endemic to the Albertine Rift and 109 species are threatened (CR, EN, VU) under the IUCN Redlist (2010).
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In the 1960s this landscape contained the highest biomass of large mammals per square kilometer ever recorded on earth with the World’s largest hippopotamus population at 30,000 individuals and large numbers of elephants, buffalos, black rhinoceros and several antelope species including waterbuck, topi and Uganda kob. Over the past 40 years though it has experienced protracted conflicts which has led to the decline of the large mammal numbers in the landscape, first in Uganda in the 1970s and early 1980s and then in Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). This is having knock-on effects on the vegetation of the landscape which used to maintained as large areas of grassland and open woodland in the savannahs by the large herbivores but is now becoming more wooded and closed as a result of the decline in large mammals. In addition several invasive plant species are invading the landscape including Lantana, Cassia, and Parthenium.
Some parts of Virunga National Park still contain armed rebels and this is a threat to parks staff and the conservation of the landscape but in Uganda and Rwanda the protected areas are fairly well managed now. Mountain gorilla tourism generates significant revenues for the parks in these countries and as a result the southern part of the landscape is well funded and protected. Some of the highest densities of people living in Africa occur around the southern end of the landscape (up to 1000 people per square kilometer) and around most of the landscape human population densities are high. The protected areas have become effectively islands in a ‘sea of agriculture’ and as a result there are increasing conflicts between people and the protected areas as animals raid their crops or kill their livestock. This in turn leads to increased poaching for bushmeat or poisoning of raiding animals which is causing declines in populations of large carnivores in particular. Oil prospecting is starting in the landscape, bringing a new threat with possibilities of opening up areas with new roads leading to increased poaching for bushmeat as well as threats of degazettment of areas.
WCS has been active in the landscape since the late 1950s when we supported Dr George Shaller to undertake his pioneering research on the mountain gorilla. Since then we have supported Uganda’s national parks and the Makerere University in Kampala to undertake research. We helped establish the Makerere University Biological Field Station in Kibale National park in the early 1990s following support to a field station in this forest since the early 1970s, managed by Dr Tom Struhsaker. We also supported Dr Amy Vedder and Bill Weber to undertake their PhD research in the Virunga Volcanoes which led onto the establishment of mountain gorilla tourism. Since the creation of WCS’s Albertine Rift Program the focus has been on helping the three protected area authorities in Uganda, Rwanda and DRC (Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), Rwanda Development Board (RDB) and Institut Congolais pour la Conservation da la Nature (ICCN) respectively) to view and manage the landscape as one coherent conservation area rather than separate protected areas. We were involved in a process led by the the International Gorilla Conservation Programme (IGCP) to develop a memorandum of understanding between the three governments to agree to collaborate on the management of the whole landscape and in developing a strategic action plan for the landscape. We have been supporting transboundary collaboration between Uganda and DRC for Queen Elizabeth, Rwenzori Mountains, Semuliki and Virunga National parks (the area north of the mountain gorilla area where IGCP had developed transboundary collaboration) since 2003.
We have piloted a conflict resolution approach together with the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) and developed a manual for conservation practitioners to learn how to manage and minimize conflict. Where we have piloted the approach we have created governance structures that provide a forum for parties to voice concerns and to work together to find mutually agreeable solutions to the conflict. These have been supported by national government in some cases following the end of funding by donors because of their ability to improve governance in an area where little governance exists.
We have been helping develop monitoring programs for the protected areas in the landscape with UWA, ICCN and RDB and monitoring plans have been developed for all parks in the landscape that use ranger-based monitoring as well as more targeted monitoring studies. UWA had developed a computer software, MIST, which takes ranger-collected data and enables simple analyses to be made taking search effort into account. WCS helped roll this software out from Murchison Falls Park to all parks and wildlife reserves in Uganda and also to all parks in Rwanda and to several of the parks in DRC. It has also been taken up by several other countries around the world. Population monitoring of the large mammals has also been supported by WCS with the regular assessment of large mammal populations form aerial surveys and ground counts being made by UWA, RDB and ICCN staff with support from WCS. These include Mountain gorilla censuses in the Virunga Volcanoes and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, chimpanzeeand elephant censuses in Kibale National park, Kasyoha-Kitomi, Kalinzu and Maramagambo Forest Reserves and aerial surveys of the savannas of the whole landscape for large mammals. These surveys have also helped improve methods in the counting of wildlife species. We have also been undertaking research into some of the threatened species in the landscape, particularly elephants, lions, and vultures as well as looking at the impacts of the changes in large mammal numbers on the savanna vegetation in the landscape.
We also have been supporting direct management of the parks including supplying field gear and uniforms for park rangers, rehabilitating park patrol posts, supporting the general field operations of ICCN and UWA and supporting the removal of invasive species in the landscape.