One of the last wild rivers in Europe, home to more than 1,000 animal and plant species, it has been declared a national park by the Albanian government, making the Vjosa the first of its kind on the continent.
The Vjosa River flows 270km from the Pindus Mountains in Greece through narrow canyons, plains and forests in Albania to the Adriatic coast. Lacking dams or other artificial barriers, it is rich in aquatic species and supports a plethora of wildlife, including otters, the endangered Egyptian vulture and the critically endangered Balkan lynx, of which only 15 are estimated to remain in Albania .
For years, the fragile ecosystem of the Vjosa has been threatened: at one point, as many as 45 hydroelectric plants were planned across the region.
But on Wednesday, after a nearly decade-long campaign by environmental NGOs, Vjosa was declared Europe’s first wild river national park. Environmentalists have described it as a historic decision that put the small Balkan nation at the forefront of river protection.
The Prime Minister of Albania, Edi Rama, announced the park during a ceremony at the Tepelena castle overlooking the river, attended by stakeholders and ministers. He described the creation of the national park as a “truly historic moment” for nature and for social and economic development.
“Today we protect once and for all the only wild river in Europe,” he said. “This is going to change a mindset. Protecting an area does not mean isolating it from the economy.”
He said national parks attract 20% more tourists than unprotected areas.
Mirela Kumbaro Furxhi, Albania’s minister of tourism and environment, said the creation of the park was part of the country’s evolution and continued 30-year emancipation from the communist regime.
“Vjosa is a symbol of human history and also a very important part of our country’s history,” he said. “Albania may not have the power to change the world, but it can create successful models to protect biodiversity and natural resources, and we are proud to announce the creation of this first national park on one of Europe’s last wild rivers “.
The country, which attracted 7.5 million visitors last year, more than double its population of 2.8 million, hopes to regenerate the villages of the Vjosa region through ecotourism.
A collaboration between the Albanian government, international experts, NGOs from the Save the Blue Heart of Europe campaign to protect Balkan rivers, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company and the he environmental organization, the 12,727 hectares (31,500 acres) aims to ensure the preservation of the Vjosa and its unique ecosystems. It has obtained IUCN category II park status, a high level of protection similar to that of a wild nature. The categorization covers ‘large-scale ecological processes’, species and ecosystems, which are critical to ensuring that dams and gravel mining are banned. It should be operational in 2024.
Boris Erg, director of the IUCN European office, paid tribute to the Albanian government for its leadership and ambition. “Today marks a milestone for Albania’s people and biodiversity,” he said. “We call on other governments in the region and beyond to show similar ambitions and help achieve the key goal of protecting 30% of the planet by 2030.”
The park will include the 118 miles of the Vjosa in Albania, three major tributaries and some land, including flood prone areas. Phase II will add more tributaries. Unlike the IUCN Wilderness Protected Areas, which limit visitor numbers, it will allow for recreational tourism and some other activities such as local fishing, especially for the 60,000 residents of the basin.
Related: Record number of dams removed from European rivers in 2021
The Albanian government is starting a joint process with the Greek authorities to create the Aoos-Vjosa cross-border park, with the aim of protecting the entire river in both countries, which agreed in January to sign a memorandum of understanding specifying the next actions.
Europe has the most obstructed river landscape in the world, with barriers such as dams, weirs and fords, estimated to number over a million, according to a 2020 EU study across 28 countries. Such fragmentation of rivers affects their ability to support life.
Ulrich Eichelmann, conservationist and founder of Riverwatch and part of the Save the Blue Heart of Europe campaign, said: “Most people in Central Europe have never seen a wild, living river, free from the impacts of human interference, i.e. not diverted or dammed or built with levees and where biodiversity is consequently low.But here you have a wild river, full of complexity and without interference.
Eichelmann said he hoped he would establish a wild rivers project elsewhere.
Patagonia CEO Ryan Gellert said the collaboration demonstrated the power of collective action. “We hope it inspires others to unite to protect the wild places we have left behind, in a meaningful way,” he said, adding that the park was proof that “the destruction of nature didn’t have to be the price of progress.” .
The company has provided $4.6m (£3.8m) to support the national park and protect wild rivers across the Balkans, through the non-profit Holdfast Collective, set up in 2022 when it declared the Land its sole shareholder.
The campaign to protect the Vjosa got a boost when Leonardo DiCaprio posted on Instagram in 2019, saying, “This is one of Europe’s last wild rivers: but for how long?”
NGOs said there was still work to be done to safeguard the remaining unprotected parts of the river, including the delta and source in Greece. Rama said a planned airport in the river delta will go ahead but without risk to nature.
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