Mgahinga Gorilla National Park sits high in the clouds, at an altitude of between 2,227m and 4,127m. As its name suggests, it was created to protect the rare mountain gorillas that inhabit its dense forests, and it is also an important habitat for the endangered golden monkey.
As well as being important for wildlife, the park also has a huge cultural significance, in particular for the indigenous Batwa pygmies. This tribe of hunter-gatherers was the forest’s “first people”, and their ancient knowledge of its secrets remains unrivalled.
Mgahinga’s most striking features are its three conical, extinct volcanoes, part of the spectacular Virunga Range that lies along the border region of Uganda, Congo and Rwanda. Mgahinga forms part of the much larger Virunga Conservation Area which includes adjacent parks in these countries. The volcanoes’ slopes contain various ecosystems and are biologically diverse, and their peaks provide a striking backdrop to this gorgeous scenery.
Mgahinga Gorilla National Park which has one habituated trans-boundary gorilla group was declared a game sanctuary by the British administration in 1930; it was gazetted as a National Park in 1991
Mgahinga Gorilla National Park has three volcanoes, which are part of the Virunga volcanic range in East Central Africa, expanding to the Albertine Rift on the Rwanda, DRC and Uganda border, north and north east of Lake Kivu. The three volcanoes in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park are thought to have arisen in the early to mid-Pleistocene era, and to have formed through a deposition of layers of ash and cinders from successive lava flows. Sabyinyo is believed to be the oldest volcano, followed by Gahinga, which is younger, and with a swamp crater of about 180m diameter at the summit. Muhabura is believed to be the youngest volcano. It is cone-shaped with a small crater lake approximately 36m in diameter at its summit. There are numerous caves on the slopes of the mountains, caused by lava tubes.
Because of its protective vegetation cover, Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is an important water catchment area. Apart from the numerous streams flowing northwards from the mountains, there is a crater lake on Mt Muhabura and a swamp crater on Mt Gahinga summit. There are also swamps in the saddles between the three volcanoes that retain water all year round, while the plains at the foot of the volcanoes are characterised by deep volcanic ash, and run-off from the mountains rapidly disappears underground.
In Mgahinga Gorilla National Park, there have been 39 mammal species recorded, although it is believed that up to 89 do occur in the park. The larger mammals include the mountain gorilla (Gorilla gorilla beringei), elephant (Loxondata africana) and buffalo (Syncerus caffer). There is also the rare golden monkey (Cercophithecus mitis kandti) known only to occur in the Virungas and two other forests in Central Africa, also recorded is the blue monkey. Other mammals include; the spotted hyena (Crucuta crocuta), the golden cat (Felis (Profelis) aurata), leopard (Panthera pardus), serval cat (Felis (Leptculurus) serval), side-striped jackal (Canisadustus), giant forest hog (Hylocheorus meinertzhageni), black-fronted duiker (Caphalophus nigrifrons), and bushbuck (Tragelaphus scriptus).
The park provides haven to about 79 bird species, including several endemic to the East Congo Montane region. A total of 185 bird species have been recorded in Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, and most are likely to occur in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park.
Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is an afromontane forest, covering the smallest area as a vegetation type on the continent. The vegetation in Mgahinga Gorilla National Park consists of woodland, and only a small area of pure montane forest still remains at the base of Mt Muhabura following encroachment in the 1950s. Above the montane forest belt is the bamboo zone that stretches from the western boundary on Sabyinyo to the lower slopes of Muhabura. The Hagenia-Hypericum zone appears above the bamboo zone on Mt. Sabyinyo and below it on Gahinga. The Afro-Alpine Belt, characterised by giant Senecio and Lobelia species, occurs above the Ericacious Belt and reaches its maximum development on Mt. Muhabura.