Albania's Vjosa river has just been declared Europe's first wild river National Park.
It is one of the last free-flowing wild rivers left on the continent. Flowing from the Pindus mountain range in Greece to the Adriatic Sea in Albania, the Vjosa spans 300 kilometres full of unspoiled wilderness and is completely free of artificial barriers like hydropower dams.
These rivers and streams are home to more than 1,100 wildlife species, including 13 animals and two plants assessed as globally threatened by the IUCN.
"Vjosa is a symbol of human history and also a very important part of the history of our country," says Mirela Kumbaro Furxhi, Albania's Minister of Tourism and Environment.
"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 Albanian government has created a 12,727-hectare National Park including the 190 kilometres-long Vjosa, where over 60,000 people have lived for centuries, Kumbaro Furxhi adds.
It means the waterway will be conserved as a living, free-flowing river, for the benefit of people and nature.
A 'unique collaboration' to save the Vjosa River
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.
Celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio also supported the campaign to secure the river national park.
“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," says Ryan Gellert, CEO of Patagonia.
"Standing on the banks of the Vjosa today, we are humbled to know that this exceptional river and its wildlife will be conserved forever.”
As part of the campaign, a short documentary called Vjosa Forever, created by Patagonia, asked concerned citizens everywhere to show their support for a Vjosa wild river National Park.
What threats was the Vjosa river facing?
The turbulent history of the Balkans overshadows the fact that it is home to the last wild rivers in Europe. Together, they have enormous ecological value.
For families who have been living in the Vjosa Valley for thousands of years, there is an emotional relationship with the river. They want to keep it the way it is.
Hydropower was one of the main threats to the river's pristine nature.
Compared to other renewable energy sources, it has storage capacity and is considered more stable and reliable than traditional solar and wind energy.
But is the only renewable energy source sending species to extinction, according to Patagonia. And 91 per cent of hydropower projects in the Balkans produce little energy, yet have major impacts on the environment and people.
The Vjosa wild river National Park will facilitate solutions to challenges faced by the river such as water and land pollution, waste management, and deforestation. The Albanian government will also create economic opportunities for local communities, through responsible tourism, and help address the problem of depopulation in the area.