On the morning of the 25th April 1986 residents of the Soviet town of Pripyat were going about their daily morning routines unaware that a mere 3 kilometres away disaster was about to strike and change the surrounding area forever. What followed was one of the worst man-made disasters as reactor four of the nearby Chernobyl nuclear power plant went into meltdown, releasing 100 times more radiation than the atom bombs dropped on Japan at the end of World War 2.
Nearly thirty years later, Pripyat is symbolic of a post-apocalyptic landscape having stood abandoned since that fateful day. Nestled within a 30km contamination zone which includes the wounded reactor, the town not only stands testament to worst of human destruction but also to what happens when nature is allowed to reclaim.
In the immediate aftermath of the meltdown, Soviet authorities acted quickly. A fence and military checkpoints went up marking out the exclusion zone, which was then expanded as needed. Those allowed within the area witnessed the creation of a nuclear wasteland as the worst contaminated villages were bulldozed and buried. 4 square miles of topsoil were removed and buried as nuclear waste; whilst the pets and livestock that had been left by the inhabitants who believed they would only be gone a few days were slaughtered.
Around a decade ago, the wildlife began to return. It started with reported sightings but as the radiation begins to fade and the area itself opens up to tourism it also open up to scientists. Although many have dismissed the wildlife as been anecdotal a new long-term census of mammals, published in the journal Current Biology has shown wildlife numbers are likely to be far higher than they were pre-nuclear disaster.
Although scientists stress that this does not mean that the radiation levels in the area are safe for the wildlife, its highlights that a lot of anthropogenic threats are far worse such as hunting, farming and forestry. In effect the census has shown the impact of removing humans from the picture. The study did not look at the impacts of radiation upon individual animals health.
Professor Jim Smith of the University of Portsmouth led the study with the help of with colleagues from the Polesky State Radioecological Reserve in Belarus. Together they used aerial surveys to study the populations of large mammals such as deer, elk and wolves. They’ve also used footprints in the winter snow to calculate the different numbers of species.
They found that the barren wasteland caused by the Chernobyl meltdown was home to similar sized populations of mammals which are seen in uncontaminated reserves. Most interestingly was the success of the wolf populations in the exclusion zone which were approximately seven times higher than in nearby reserves of a comparable size.
One of the causes of this may be the eradication of human-predator conflict. Predators are often persecuted as they hunt livestock and seem to pose a threat to human life, as a result they find themselves becoming the hunted animal. When you’re main source of income is your livestock, a predator is often viewed as a nuisance and something to be rid of. However in the exclusion zone there is no livestock farming, instead the cultivated fields which surround it give way to woodland and an untamed landscape as nature has broken back through. As the people left so did any reason to persecute large predators like wolves, perhaps explaining their prolific population increase.
The study of wildlife within the exclusion zone is however a long-term one. Whilst returning wildlife may be abundant now it is still unknown what impact the lingering radiation may have on those returning. Natural dispersion has caused the radiation levels to drop in the exclusion zone however radionuclides cesium 137 and strontium 90 will remain in the environment for decades to come. So far however all rumours of mutant radioactive animals have been quashed and things look good for the wildlife of Chernobyl. The mammal tracks studied showed that species were just as abundant in contaminated areas as they were in less contaminated areas.
The Chernobyl disaster had wide-ranging impacts; the unknown and controversial death toll may never be truly known and many of the former inhabitants of the surrounding area still bare the psychological scars from that day. In southern Belarus the impacts can still be felt as schools and other public buildings are regularly washed down and lengthy regulations control agriculture to minimise the uptake of radiation into crops from the fallout.
It appears that the wildlife was the only winner in the disaster. Camera traps have revealed Przewalski’s Horses; a species once extinct in the wild moving around in large herds whilst brown bears have been sighted in the area. If anything the whole area highlights the destruction mankind causes across the globe through their daily activities as the nature has swiftly reclaimed our destruction once we moved out. The stark and grim truth may be that habitat destruction and exploitation of the land is actually worse than the radiation for animals.
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