A vast cross-border area of natural beauty and diverse and unique wildlife in the Balkans is close to becoming a national park, one of the largest in Europe.
Politicians in North Macedonia are set to pass a Bill to protect an area of more than 240,000 hectares, centred on Shar Mountain, that ranges through Albania, North Macedonia and Kosovo.
Shar Mountain has 37 glacial lakes, 25 of them in North Macedonia and the rest in Kosovo.
The region’s rich biodiversity includes 200 endemic plant species, 167 butterfly species, 12 amphibian species, 18 reptile species, 130 bird species and 45 mammal species. This is almost half the total number of mammal species in North Macedonia.
But the natural treasure on the Balkan’s Green Belt has been endangered for years, with decades of illegal logging in the forests leaving landscapes scarred.
This is a particular problem in the more densely populated lower slopes of Shar Mountain, which locals have used for free farming, hunting, fuel and timber.
Over the past two decades, North Macedonia has lost about 40,000 hectares of forest to illegal logging, authorities have said.
Anela Stavrevska-Panajotova, an International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) expert, said the country was witnessing “a historic opportunity, after 60 years, to have a new national park, which is the missing piece for protected areas in the Balkans”.
“Together with other protected areas in other neighbouring countries, we will have the largest trans-boundary protected area in all of Europe. And we are very proud about it,” she said.
Authorities have been trying to figure out how best to protect the Shar Mountain region since 1994.
Some support has come from the UN Environment Programme.
Meanwhile, North Macedonia is also trying to meet the European Union’s target for joining the bloc, which stipulates that nations must protect at least 12% of their territory.
North Macedonia has protected an estimated 9% – with Shar Mountain National Park, this will rise to more than 13%.
Naser Xhemaili, the 32-year-old owner of a company offering mountain tourism programmes and horseback rides, expects many benefits from the national park designation, including improved infrastructure such as roads.
“We await a lot from the national park: tourist arrivals into our cabins, sales of dairy products, which I believe will be much better and at a higher price,” he said.
North Macedonia’s environment minister, Naser Nuredini, argued that the park would have long-term benefits and not just for locals.
“We are creating one of the largest protected areas in Europe, together with the national parks Sharri in Kosovo and Mavrovo in Albania,” he said.
“This is going to have huge potential for future generations, for the current generation as well, because now we can use a national resource in a sustainable way.”
“We are talking about skiing in the winter, hiking and biking in the summer, tourism from across the world,” he added.