Belgian colonists, who intended to protect the mountain gorillas on Karisimbi, Bisoke and Mikeno in Rwanda and the Belgian Congo from poachers, first gazetted the Virungas as a national park in 1925. This small conservation triangle was the first protected area to be created on the continent of Africa. Four years later, the borders were extended further to form Parc National Albert (Albert National Park), a massive area that encompassed more than 8000 sq km.
Following the independence of the Congo in 1960 and Rwanda in 1962, Albert National Park was split into two entities, the Rwanda portion being assigned the name Parc National des Volcans. During the early years of Rwanda’s fragile independence, it wasn’t poaching or fighting that harmed the gorillas most, but rather a small daisy-like flower known as pyrethrum. Due to a large grant by the European Community (EC), the 1960s saw the conversion of half of Parc National des Volcans into commercial farms for pyrethrum, which can be processed into a natural insecticide.
By the early 1970s, poachers were making inroads on both sides of the Rwanda–Congo border as the demand for stuffed gorilla heads and hands (which were, depressingly, used as ashtrays) began to burgeon. Thankfully the plight of the mountain gorilla became an international issue following the work of the late Dian Fossey.
Gorilla tracking in Rwanda was first launched in 1979 by Amy Vedder and Bill Weber, who marketed the charismatic creatures to tourists on overland trips. By the late 1980s, the sale of gorilla permits was the country’s third-largest revenue earner, which was enough to convince ordinary Rwandans that these great apes were indeed a valuable natural resource worth protecting.
In 1991 Rwanda was plunged into civil war, and Parc National des Volcans became a battlefield. By the time the perpetrators of the genocide swept across Rwanda in 1994, the park had been heavily land-mined and then abandoned as refugees fled into the neighbouring DRC. When the dust from the conflict settled, many observors were surprised to discover that the gorillas had weathered the violence remarkably well. However, it wasn’t until 1999 that Parc National des Volcans was once again reopened to tourism. Since then tourism has boomed and gorilla tracking has once again become one of Rwanda's biggest earners. When the country changed one of its official languages from French to English in 2008, the park's name changed to Volcanoes National Park.