What's Happening To Wildlife Around Chernobyl?

By Editorial Staff in Nature On 6th October 2015

#1 Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in 1986 caused an international disaster never before seen.

In a wide departure from the notion that Chernobyl's exclusion zone is an inhospitable, desolate tundra, researchers have found animal populations are actually thriving in the region, no longer burdened by humanity's impact.

However... Wild boar are thriving in the exclusion zone.

#2 The Evacuation Zone

The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (CEZ) covers 4,200 square kilometers (1,600 square miles), and encompasses parts of both Belarus and Ukraine. Immediately after the disaster, all people living permanently within this area around 116,000 in total were forced to leave and have never been allowed to return.

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#3 No Humans Live in This Zone

The area has been uninhabited since the 1986 meltdown of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, which killed 31 people and forced all residents to evacuate from more than 1,000 square miles. But a new study published recently in the journal Current Biology found flourishing numbers of large wildlife, including wolves, elk, foxes and wild boar, inside the Belarusian part of the exclusion zone, near the Ukraine border.

(Deer in the exclusion zone.)

#4 There Seems To Be A Large Number of Various Wildlife Flourishing

Different species all thriving and living harmoniously in the zone are keeping scientist bewildered.

"Within the exclusion zone there's evidence of wildlife everywhere," said James Beasley, a researcher at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory and co-author of the study.

(Przhevalski horses inside the Chernobyl area.)

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#5 Animals Are Populating 7 Times Faster Than Before The Accident

The findings come with some striking statistics. Wolf populations in the area are seven times higher than they were before the accident. Populations of hoofed animals are on par with those seen in protected reserves in Belarus. And small animals are likely doing even better, as they breed faster than larger mammals.

#6 There Is No Human Interaction There

This resurgence is likely linked to the removal of human sprawl, hunting and the general strain urbanization puts on natural ecology.

#7 Baby Spotted Eagles

While animal populations may be doing well, the study's authors say their research didn't look at the individual health of animals, which has almost certainly been impacted in some way by the potent fallout. Scientists have long observed the toll of radiation on certain species, including deformed beaks in birds, a decline in the number of spiders and an uptick in tumors in some animals, according to a report last year by The New York Times.

But those effects are mostly concentrated in so-called "hot zones," regions where radiation is still found at high levels. Other areas in the exclusion zone are relatively clean of the fallout, enough so that disaster tourism has spiked in recent years.

#8 Wild Bison

"We're not looking at the health of individuals, we're looking at the health of populations," Smith said. "We're in this kind of different radiation regime ... and what we're saying is we're pretty confident the wildlife now is doing better than it was before the accident."

#9 A Lynx

The researchers counted the number of tracks and what species they belonged during winter surveys, along with collecting data on the radiocaesium contamination across the study site. They found that there was zero correlation between the levels of radioactivity and the density of wildlife living in that area.

#10 Eurasian Lynx

One of the many larger animals seen in larger numbers than before the disaster is the lynx.

#11 Kingfishers inside the exclusion zone

while in other parts of Europe numbers of species such as wild boar and moose were declining as the Soviet Union broke up, around Chernobyl the populations of these animals were actually increasing. Today, they found that while the numbers of moose, wild boar, red deer and roe deer have reached the same as that observed in uncontaminated national reserves in the surrounding region, the number of various birds and small creatures is actually seven times higher in the CEZ.

#12 The Red Dee In The Exclusion Zone

Multiple camera setups are logging the tracks and travel areas of each species of animal in the zone.

#13 Wild Boar

The wild boar is multiplying at a rate never seen before. Almost 12 percent above normal for any area in Europe.

#14 European Crane

The cameras are part of a five-year project to monitor wildlife in the 30km exclusion zone around the former nuclear power plant, which covers an area of approximately 2,600 km.

#15 The Roe Deer

Only seen rarely before 1986, the Roe deer has now multiplied to a number estimated in the thousands in the red zone near Ukraine.

#16 Bears?

Almost 30 years after the nuclear disaster, the woods are teeming with birds and large mammals, including brown bears.

Bears had not been seen in this area for more than a century, so researchers were surprised to find the first images of bears when they checked their cameras.

There may still be mutations, but scientists are finding very little signs of that now.

#17 Radioactive wildlife is dwindling in the last 10 years.

This suggests that the pressures of human habitation on surrounding wildlife is a major limiting factor, especially for predators. The data also shows just how resilient wildlife populations are, even if faced with a major nuclear disaster.