When it comes to the environment, there seems to be nothing as monumentally destructive as a nuclear disaster. On April 26th, 1986, despite political differences, the world watched in horror, as an explosion and fire at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine released an unprecedented amount of nuclear particles into the air. Although Ukraine was severely affected, Belarus, its neighbor, actually received the majority of the nuclear fallout. After the disaster, thousands of workers came from all over the Soviet Union to clean up, working in shifts because of the negative effects of radiation. Most of Europe was also affected and consequently the Chernobyl catastrophe was branded the worst nuclear disaster in human history. It has since remained imprinted upon minds all over globe and whenever people talk about the dangers associated with nuclear energy, they often think about the Chernobyl disaster.
As the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster is not celebrated, but rather observed, the power of the catastrophe is made evident by the fact that humans will not be able to safely inhabit the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (CEZ), an area of about 19 miles in all directions from the nuclear plant, for the next 20,000 years.
Despite how dark and barren the CEZ may seem, there is an unexpected outcome, as with most environmental disasters, which surprisingly indicates that nuclear disasters are not the worst thing to happen to wildlife. The Chernobyl disaster caused 116,000 people to be evacuated from the area, and now without those people, wildlife populations are booming. Almost unbelievably, the true kings of the forests have returned to re- claim their kingdoms, in what is considered an extremely unusual turn of events.
The land in the CEZ now has large populations of wolves, elk, deer, red foxes and wild boar roaming through the forests, despite the present threat of radiation. Even the extremely rare Przewalkski’s horse has been photographed in camera traps stationed within the area. This beautiful and prized subspecies of horse has a fascinating history, descending from only a handful of horses captured in 1945, it remains the only true wild horse in the world today. No one believed that these horses, which had escaped by accident, would survive in these countries, let alone in areas affected by the Chernobyl disaster! Species that were absent prior to the Chernobyl disaster, such as the European lynx, can now be found there. Also, brown bears had not been found in this region for over 100 years, and they currently walk around before cameras, photographed and thriving. Belarusian bison are also captured on camera, in areas that seem to have be- come “accidental nature reserves.”
Amidst the hustle and bustle of Europe’s cities and towns, some of these glorious kings of the forest hunt their prey peacefully in previously inhabited lands. Of course, it is actually not that simple, as the long-term health of these populations still needs to be investigated. However, it does provide some interesting insight into what might happen on the Earth without humans. Whereas the His- tory Channel’s Life After People or Alan Weisman’s best-selling book, The World Without Us, may illustrate this concept theoretically, the CEZ provides interesting scientific evidence into human impacts on the environment. Can humans really be so bad that they are worse for wildlife populations than a nuclear disaster? The answer seems to be, in part, yes.
Scientists continue to work in both Ukraine and Belarus, determined to utilize the unique no-human area in a continent that has very few uninhabited areas left. As part of a five-year research program, they have conducted helicopter surveys in the CEZ and examined tracks in snow, in order to trace wildlife movement. Cameras, positioned in 84 locations, collected tens of thousands of photographs of wildlife during 2015. Now, in 2016, one group of scientists out of the UK, headed by Mike Wood of the University of Salford, are interested in fitting radiation-detecting collars to packs of wolves, as they move across different levels of radiation. They want to understand how movement can be important for avoiding the negative effects of fallout in animals that are now utilizing these areas. This can be particularly useful information, as other organ- isms such as reptiles, insects and small mammals, which are unable to move out of high contamination areas, have been unable to make a comeback and seem to have developed nuclear-related diseases. Thus, scientists are trying to untangle the Chernobyl disaster, in terms of how negative effects of nuclear radiation may offset the disappearance of humans, and how this can also be dependent on the type of organism.
According to a report, published in the scientific journal Current Biology, there seem to be particularly positive impacts on many wildlife populations in Belarus. Wildlife populations in the Polesie reserve, an 835-square-mile reserve established in Belarus after the Chernobyl disaster, are even higher than in Ukraine and other Belarusian nature reserves. The high prevalence of wolves in this particular region, which are up to seven times higher than in reserves with no contamination at all, may be attributed to a lack of human hunting in this area.
Although the Chernobyl disaster will still remain a catastrophe with very long impacts on the environment, the exclusion zones and reserves do suggest an important lesson for humans about how detrimental mankind can be for other organisms, particularly large mammals. Undoubtedly, as we embark on the next geologic era, known as the Anthropocene (human-impacted environment), we should look to this research, and change our destructive behaviors, before it is too late. And, hopefully, we will not need another nuclear disaster like Chernobyl, in order for the kings of the forests to return.
You can find more Chernobyl wildlife at http://www.vasilyfedosenko. com/#!chernobyl/cpq3
By Veronica Grigaltchik