Meet Europe’s Latest National Park, A Wild River in the Heart of Albania
The Vjosa is a more than 400-kilometer (approximately 250 miles) river that flows from Greece’s Pindus Mountains to Albania’s Adriatic coast through the habitats of otters, Egyptian vultures and Baltic lynxes among more than 1,100 animal species.
As of Wednesday, it is also Europe’s first wild river national park.
“Today we protect once and for all the only wild river in Europe,” Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama said at the designation ceremony, as The Guardian reported.
The Vjosa is the one of the only wild rivers in Europe outside of Russia, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), one of the organizations that campaigned for the park’s formation. It passes through a variety of landscapes from gorges near the start of its journey to a delta at the end. The middle stretch alone incorporates at least eight different habitat types. The area is also home to abundant biodiversity, including 13 species of animal and two species of plant that the IUCN has designated as threatened.
Its protection is especially important, according to the new park’s website, because “freshwater ecosystems are the most threatened in the world.”
Since 1970, the populations of freshwater species globally have fallen by 84 percent and the populations of migratory fish in Europe have fallen by 94 percent. In addition to protecting natural wonders, the new park also includes the UNESCO World Heritage site of Gjirokastra, famous for its two-story 17th century houses.
“Vjosa is a symbol of human history and also a very important part of the history of our country,” Albania’s Minister of Tourism and Environment Mirela Kumbaro Furxhi said in the IUCN press release. “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.”
Vjosa’s protection was not inevitable. The river faced threats from 40 planned hydropower plants either on the river itself or on its tributaries, a proposed airport near its mouth and even oil exploration by Shell, according to NGO coalition Save the Blue Heart of Europe. However, the coalition united with IUCN, local and international experts and outdoor clothing company Patagonia to advocate for a park, according to IUCN.
The Albanian government listened. In June 2022, Rama, Kumbaro and Patagonia CEO Ryan Gellert signed a promise to create the Vjosa Wild River National Park, which finally came to fruition after nine months of research and consultations.
“This unique collaboration between government, civil society and business is testament to the power of collective action and we hope it will inspire others to come together to protect the wild places we have left, in a meaningful way,” Gellert said in the IUCN release. “Standing on the banks of the Vjosa today, we are humbled to know that this exceptional river and its wildlife will be conserved forever.”
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