Animals thrive in radioactive space left by Chernobyl

By Sarah Harvey

An elk stands in a forest in the state radiation ecology reserve in the 30 km exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor.
REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko
An elk stands in a forest in the state radiation ecology reserve in the 30 km exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

Wildlife are reclaiming the area left devoid of human life by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

The 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster was one of the worst in history, forcing the evacuation of 116,000 people from the nearby area, but today wildlife populations are soaring in the area that bridges the border between Ukraine and Belarus.

According to a new study published in Current Biology by Jim Smith, an environmental scientist, both animal and plant life is strong in the area.

“Nature flourishes when humans are removed from the equation, even after the world’s worst nuclear accident,” said Smith, an earth and environmental sciences professor at the University of Portsmouth in the UK.

“It’s much like the landscape of the rest of that area of Ukraine and Belarus, but without the people,” he said. “Ten years ago, it was like a town overgrown by the forest. Today it’s like a forest that has swallowed some buildings.”

A European gray wolf roams an area off limits to people near the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.   PHOTO: SERGEY GASHCHAK, CHERNOBYL CENTER
A European gray wolf roams an area off limits to people near the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. PHOTO: SERGEY GASHCHAK, CHERNOBYL CENTER

 

Smith said the disaster had created somewhat of an accidental nature reserve with the area teeming with big herbivores and predators, including the European lynx and the European brown bear, not seen in the region for nearly a century.

European grey wolves have flourished and now number more than seven times that of any other similar, uncontaminated reserve.

“We’re not saying the radiation levels are good for the animals; we know it damages their DNA, but human habitation and development of the land are worse for wildlife,” Smith said.

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