‘Historic moment’ for nature as Europe’s first wild river national park is announced in Albania | rivers

One of Europe’s last wild rivers, home to over 1,000 animal and plant species, 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 168 miles (270 km) from the Pindos mountains in Greece through narrow canyons, plains and forests in Albania to the Adriatic coast. Free of dams or other man-made barriers, it is rich in aquatic species and home to a myriad 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 under threat: at one time, up to 45 hydroelectric power stations were planned for the area.

The site of the abandoned Kalivaç dam project on the Vjosa River.  The river's new status will protect it from future development projects.
The site of the abandoned Kalivaç dam project on the Vjosa River. The river’s new status will protect it from future development projects. Photography: Nick St. Oegger/The Guardian

But on Wednesday, after an almost decade-long campaign by environmental NGOs, Vjosa was declared the first wild river national park in Europe. Environmentalists described it as a landmark decision that put the small Balkan nation at the forefront of river protection.

Map showing the course of the Vjosa River from Greece, through Albania to the Adriatic.

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama announced the creation of the park during a ceremony at Tepelena Castle overlooking the river, attended by stakeholders and ministers. He described the creation of the national park as a “true historic moment” for nature as well as for social and economic development.

“Today, we are protecting Europe’s only wild river once and for all,” he said. “It’s about to change a mindset. Protecting a territory 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 continued evolution and emancipation three decades after communist rule.

“Vjosa is a symbol of human history and also a very important part of our country’s history,” she said. “Maybe Albania does not have the power to change the world, but it can create successful models of protecting biodiversity and natural assets, and we are proud to announce the creation of this first national park on one of the last wild rivers in Europe.”

The country, which attracted 7.5 million visitors last year, more than double its 2.8 million population, hopes to regenerate villages in the Vjosa region through ecotourism.

The Vjosa River near Qesarat in southern Albania.
The Vjosa River near Qesarat in southern Albania. Photography: Nick St. Oegger/The Guardian

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 clothing company outdoor and environmental organization, the 12,727 hectares (31,500 acres) aims to ensure the preservation of the Vjosa and its unique ecosystems. It has received IUCN Category II Park status, a high level of protection similar to that of a wilderness. The categorization covers “large-scale ecological processes”, species and ecosystems, crucial to ensuring the banning of dams and gravel extraction. It should be operational in 2024.

Boris Erg, Director of IUCN’s European Office, paid tribute to the Albanian government for its leadership and ambition. “Today marks an important milestone for the people and biodiversity of Albania,” he said. “We invite other governments in the region and beyond to show similar ambition and help achieve the vital goal of protecting 30% of the planet by 2030.”

The park will encompass the 118 miles of the Vjosa in Albania, three major tributaries and some land including areas at risk of flooding. Phase II will add more tributaries. Unlike the IUCN wilderness protected areas, which limit the number of visitors, it will allow recreational tourism and some other activities such as local fishing, especially for the 60,000 inhabitants of the catchment area.

The Albanian government is starting a joint process with the Greek authorities to create the Aoos-Vjosa Transfrontier Park, aimed at protecting the entire river across the two countries, who agreed in January to sign a memorandum of understanding outlining next actions .

Europe has the most obstructed river landscape in the world, with barriers such as dams, weirs and fords estimated at more than one 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 member of the Save the Blue Heart of Europe campaign, said: “Most people in Central Europe have never seen a wild, living river, at the sheltered from the impacts of human interference i.e. not diverted or dammed or built with embankments and where biodiversity is low as a result But here you have a wild river, full of complexity and without interference .

Ulrich Eichelmann, environmentalist, activist and CEO of Riverwatch.
Ulrich Eichelmann of Riverwatch said he hoped the Vjosa project would be a model for wild river conservation elsewhere. Photography: Nick St. Oegger/The Guardian

Eichelmann said he hopes it sets a blueprint for wild rivers elsewhere.

Ryan Gellert, CEO of Patagonia, said the collaboration demonstrates the power of collective action. “We hope this inspires others to come together to protect the wild places we left behind, in a meaningful way,” he said, adding that the park is proof that “the destruction of nature should not 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 nonprofit Holdfast Collective, set up in 2022 when it declared Earth its sole shareholder.

The campaign to protect the Vjosa got a boost when Leonardo DiCaprio posted about it on Instagram in 2019, saying: “It’s one of the last wild rivers in Europe: 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 the source in Greece. Rama said a planned airport in the river delta will go ahead but without risks to nature.

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