Vjosa becomes national park – first protected wild river in Europe

Photo: Boris Erg / IUCN


March 20, 2023



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March 20, 2023



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The Vjosa, one of the last wild rivers of Europe, has been declared a national park in Albania, following a decade-long environmentalist campaign. It is the highest level of protection on a national level, aimed at preserving ecosystems, biodiversity and endangered species as well as benefitting the local community.

The government of Albania decided that the Vjosa river is becoming the first wild river national park in Europe. It is primarily the result of several years of campaigning by the Save the Blue Heart of Europe coalition of environmentalist organizations, alongside the cooperation between state institutions and the civil sector since last year.

The government worked with experts, nongovernmental organizations, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and outdoor clothing company Patagonia. The initiative to conserve the Vjosa as a free-flowing river began almost a decade ago. In the meantime, the attempt to build hydropower plants was stopped.

Protection of Vjosa shows how state institutions, civil sector can work together

Vjosa or Vojuša is the biggest wild river in the continent. Including tributaries, there is more than 400 kilometers of free flow 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.

Photo: © Gernot Kunz

The establishment of a national park should make it easier to tackle issues like water and land pollution, waste management and deforestation, according to a joint press release by the Ministry of Tourism and Environment, IUCN and Patagonia. They said it would create economic opportunities for local communities, through responsible tourism, and help address the problem of depopulation from the area.

Government of Albania endorsed river protection initiative

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 update reads.

The Vjosa will be conserved as a living, free-flowing river

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.

“The Albanian government has taken the bold decision to create a national park of 12,727 hectares, including the 190-kilometer long Vjosa, where over 60,000 people have lived for centuries,” Minister of Tourism and Environment Mirela Kumbaro Furxhi stated.

IUCN called on other governments in the region and beyond to show similar ambition and help reach the vital goal of protecting 30% of the planet by 2030

IUCN is calling on other governments in the region and beyond to show similar ambition and help reach the vital goal of protecting 30% of the planet by 2030, the organization’s European Regional Office Director Boris Erg asserted.

“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,” Patagonia’s CEO Ryan Gellert stated.

Vjosa’s natural abundance benefits local communities

The basin is an enormous mosaic of different habitat types, from the narrow gorges in the upper part, to the wide braided river sections in the middle part, to the near-natural delta at the Adriatic Sea. The surrounding watershed provides fertile land for crop production and livestock farming.

Vjosa national park first wild river Europe
Photo: © Gregor Subic

The abundance and diversity of fish is vital for the well-being of local fishermen, mostly in the lower part of the Vjosa. Eco-tourism on the Vjosa and its tributaries is ever-increasing, particularly in recent years as enthusiasts have started to enjoy activities such as rafting, canoeing, kayaking and swimming, the announcement reads.

Establishment of national park to be implemented in two phases

In phase 1, the national park will comprise the active channel of the river plus some lands and river vegetation within the active channel, or at risk of flooding or erosion – over 400 kilometers in total length.

Phase 2, in the coming years, will add other free-flowing tributaries and areas that are integral to the river’s ecosystem, plus some private land, the statement revealed.

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 from source to sea.

In February, an initiative was launched to declare the river a biosphere reserve under the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

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