Europe’s Last Wild River Given National Park Status

The Vjosa River in Albania will now be afforded protection to the highest international standards

Read time 3 mins

Published Mar 16, 2023

Base editorial team
BASE editorial team BASE writers and editors who live and breathe adventure every day. We love adventure storytelling as much as we love adventure itself.

Yesterday, the Vjosa River in Albania was declared a National Park by the Albanian Government, becoming the first Wild River National Park in Europe. Known to be the last truly wild river within the continent, the Vjosa will now be conserved as a living, free-flowing river, to the benefit of people and nature.

The announced establishment of a wild river national park back in September 2020 became a cause for concern after political uncertainty threatened to compromise the integrity of the promised conservation plans. This latest announcement is a hard-fought victory and the result of a unique collaboration between the Albanian Government, local and international experts, environmental NGOs from the Save the Blue Heart of Europe campaign, IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) and outdoor clothing company Patagonia.

The Vjosa and its surrounding areas are ecosystems of substantial biodiversity and are home to over 1,100 species of animals © Andrew Burr

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, Minister of Tourism and Environment Mirela Kumbaro Furxhi and Patagonia CEO Ryan Gellert sign the declaration of Europe’s first Wild River National Park © Elton Baxhaku

The Vjosa and its main tributaries run freely for over 400km, from the Pindus Mountain Range in Greece, where it is called Aoös, to the Adriatic coast in Albania. The river and its surrounding areas are ecosystems of substantial biodiversity and are home to over 1,100 species of animals, including 13 animal species and two plant species assessed as globally threatened by IUCN.

The Vjosa Wild River National Park facilitates solutions to challenges faced by the river such as water and land pollution, waste management, and deforestation. Additionally, the National Park will create economic opportunities for local communities, through responsible tourism, and help address the problem of depopulation from the area.

Mirela Kumbaro Furxhi, the Albanian Minister of Tourism and Environment said of the announcement:

‘Vjosa is a symbol of human history and also a very important part of the history of our country. 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.’

Gaining IUCN Category II: National Park status means the Vjosa will be afforded protection to the highest international standards, ensuring its ecological integrity, allowing natural processes to occur and sustaining populations of all native species. The designation will take place in two phases, with Phase I being declared yesterday (15th March):

> In Phase I, the active channel of the river will be given National Park status, plus some lands and river vegetation within the active channel, or at risk of flooding or erosion – over 400km in total length. The area will be managed as a National Park and is expected to be fully operational by early 2024.

> Phase II, in the coming years, will add other free-flowing tributaries and areas that are integral to the river’s ecosystem, plus some private land, following consultation with stakeholders.

For more than 10 years, activists have fought against plans for hydropower projects that would affect the Vjosa © Jan Pirnat

© Andrew Burr

Standing on the banks of the Vjosa today, we are humbled to know that this exceptional river and its wildlife will be conserved forever

Patagonia, IUCN, and the Save the Blue Heart of Europe campaign NGOs have been engaged in the work to protect the wild rivers of the Balkan Peninsular for the last eight years. In 2021, IUCN finalised a study showing how applying IUCN’s protected area standards would benefit the communities and biodiversity of the Vjosa Valley.

In June 2022, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, Minister of Tourism and Environment Mirela Kumbaro and Patagonia CEO Ryan Gellert came together at a ceremony in Tirana to sign a commitment to create Vjosa Wild River National Park together. Gellert said:

‘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. Standing on the banks of the Vjosa today, we are humbled to know that this exceptional river and its wildlife will be conserved forever.’

The designation is a collaboration between the Albanian government, IUCN, the Save the Blue Heart of Europe campaign and Patagonia © Elton Baxhaku

Over the last nine months, extensive fieldwork and in-depth analysis has taken place by a team of over 30 local and international experts in areas such as eco-tourism, geomorphology, ecology, planning and management of protected areas, sustainable financing of national parks, legislation, and social and environmental impact assessment. Consultation with interest groups, as well as public communication, has also been incorporated into the process. At the same time, the Albanian government is starting a joint process with the Greek government to create the Aoös -Vjosa transboundary park, aiming for the highest level of protection for the entire river, from source to sea, across both countries.

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