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The Wildlife of Chernobyl. Thirty Years after the Boom

An aspiring explorer and journalist Marina Shkvyria slowly moves through the wicker near a village right on the outskirts of the exclusion zone. The settlement is long abandoned and silent. Marina spots a moving animal somewhere in the ruins and starts moving towards it. She looks around carefully and sees a wolf track on the ground nearby.

Many people think of the exclusion zone as a wasteland that steams with radioactive vapors. People think that the area is completely stripped of any life. In reality, the life always finds its way. The Exclusion zone serves as home to all sorts of wild animals. You can see a rare moose strolling through woods or spot a massive bear somewhere on the horizon. Marina often says that the most dangerous enemy to wildlife is not radiation but people who hunt them and scare them away from natural habitat.

Shkvyria is a well-known specialist in the Ukrainian National Science Academy. She is still a dedicated explorer of the area and know nearly everything about wolves. She has a very unique way to monitor wildlife and wants to use cheap harmless methods to do research. When asked what she witnessed recently, she smiles and tells us a story that she once howled near the village hoping for a response and a pack of young wolves arrived.

The scientific community is not in a consensus about the destiny of local wildlife. The exclusion zone is not as lifeless as some may think but it is not an optimal biosphere to host life either. Some scientist think that the area is safe enough for wildlife to continue striving and adapt. There are also people who strongly believe that life will perish in the zone or will fall victim to mutations and cancers.

Dr. Beasley of University of Georgia recently presented a study of Wildlife in Belarus which was also impacted by the catastrophe. The exclusion zone on the Belarus territory was full of life. A relatively short survey allowed the researcher find a massive variety of species including several dozens of boars and badgers, wolves, raccoons, and multiple foxes. He also noted that there are so many wolves there that walking a day without seeing one is impossible.

He concludes decisively that radiation is not something that prevents life from striving in the region.

The Przewalski's horse nearly went extinct, but in an effort to save the species it was introduced into the area around Chernobyl in 1998 and to other reserves worldwide. Without humans living in the area, the horse population has been increasing.

While researching this story, one biologist who studies Chernobyl told me I would not see any roadkill in the exclusion zone—and would be lucky to hear any birds or see any animals.

So when I visited in early April, I made a point of counting every animal I saw. Even in the busy area between the main guard post and the remains of the Chernobyl power plant, signs of wildlife were everywhere.

Walking along sandy firebreaks used as forest highways with Shkvyria and her colleague, vole specialist Olena Burdo, we found the tracks of wolf, moose, deer, badger, and horses. I counted scores of birds: ravens, songbirds, three kinds of birds of prey, and dozens of swans paddling in the radioactive cooling pond.

In a herd of wild Przewalski's horses, a rare and endangered subspecies of wild horse introduced to the preserve, I counted an adult male, two adult females, and two juveniles. They charged toward us across a large shaggy field, their brush-like black manes standing straight up from taupe bodies, and took a long look at us as disused power lines swayed in the distance.

We also saw the handiwork of beavers—everywhere. The growth of their populations in recent years may be one of the most important things to happen in the zone’s ecology. After placing the camera trap on the trunk of a pine, Shkvyria, Burdo, and I walk along a path, eventually entering a village of rotting wooden cottages slowly being swallowed up by scrubby pines, birches, and willows. Here the earth had been torn up by a sounder of foraging boars.

On the opposite end of the village, a perfectly straight Soviet canal still drained the low-lying land. The bright chips of a freshly chewed birch still lay at the base of a tree. Felled birches, some three feet around, lay across the water, up and down the length of the ditch.

“Literally three weeks ago that tree was still standing,” Shkvyria says, pointing to the pale chips. “The beaver population is growing. Beavers can return it to being a little bit more wild,” she says. Eventually, as the beavers fell trees, the land will return to bogs. “It will become like it was a hundred years ago.”

 

“The beaver in Ukraine is exactly like the elephant in Africa: it completely changes the look of the landscape.”

The combined territory of the exclusion zones in Ukraine and Belarus caused by the Chernobyl disaster is a little more than 1,600 square miles, making it one of the largest truly wild sanctuaries in Europe.

But what it means for animals to be rebounding in Chernobyl has become the scientific equivalent of a boxing match, with the latest blow delivered Monday when Beasley put forward a study in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

His study catalogued 14 species of mammals, and “found no evidence to suggest that their distributions were suppressed in highly contaminated areas within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.” The abstract ends pointedly. “These data support the results of other recent studies, and contrast with research suggesting that wildlife populations are depleted within the CEZ.”

 

Anders Pape Møller, a Danish scientist at the University of Paris-Sud who has studied swallows in nuclear environments, says his research shows otherwise. “These animals in Chernobyl and Fukushima live 24 hours a day in these contaminated sites. Even if the actual dose for one hour is not extremely high, after a week or after a month, it adds up to a lot. These effects are certainly at a level where you could see dramatic consequences.”

His research with biologist Timothy Mousseau has shown that voles have higher rates of cataracts, useful populations of bacteria on the wings of birds in the zone are lower, partial albinism among barn swallows, and that cuckoos have become less common, among other findings. Serious mutations, though, happened only right after the accident.

Both sides agree that radiation is bad for people and bad for animals; the debate is over how bad and whether it has caused populations to decline.

The debate among scientists over the effects of low levels of ionizing radiation on wildlife and humans is heated and political, especially after the Fukushima catastrophe five years ago. With 30 years of history now to draw from, Chernobyl is the proving ground.

 

This year will mark the half-life of cesium-137, one of the most widespread and dangerous of the radionuclides released. That means the amount of cesium has dropped by about half in the 30 years since the accident, decaying into the short-lived barium-137m.

For animals, radioactive material enters the system through the food chain.

As Shkvyria places a camera trap on a pine tree near the wolf hillock, Burdo explains. “Mushrooms concentrate radiation. Voles love mushrooms. When they eat contaminated mushrooms, they concentrate the radiation in their bodies. When wolves eat voles, they pick up the contamination.”

But the level of radionuclide contamination in an animal depends both on concentrations in its habitat and on the diet and behaviors of the animal, she says. Radiation deposited by fallout from Chernobyl has been measured as far away as Norway in reindeer, but it is patchily spread in the exclusion zone.

Wolves, in particular, may get at least some protection from radiation because they have a big territory and move around a lot, even outside the zone into cleaner areas.

“I would argue that for many of those species [the effects of radiation], even if they’re there, probably aren’t enough to suppress populations to the point where they can’t sustain themselves,” says Beasley. In the zone, “humans have been removed from the system and this greatly overshadows any of those potential radiation effects.”

Essentially, this means that human populations have a bigger negative impact than radiation.

 

In his research lab in Slavutych, the surreal little Soviet town built right after the disaster for the physicists, workers, and scientists affiliated with Chernobyl, Sergey Gaschak emphatically agrees. The wildlife population has grown “dramatically,” says Gaschak, who has worked in the zone for the past 30 years.

“Before the accident it was an area absolutely populated by people.” But he says that there is a “myth” that new animals have started to appear in the exclusion zone. “This is absolutely not true. Almost all the species we have now, we had before the accident, just in lower densities.”

Gaschak has been using camera traps for a few years now and has a more complete list than almost any other researcher on the Ukrainian side. “We have all large mammals: red deer, roe deer, wild boar, moose, horse, bison, brown bear, lynx, wolves, two species of hare, beaver, otter, badger, some martins, some mink, and polecats,” he says, without taking a breath, adding that there are may be 20 other mammals including bats and also ten or more species of big birds, including hawks, eagles, owls, storks, and swans.

 

Backing up the camera traps, Shkvyria has gone into the old Soviet archives, stacks of paper reports shelved in the National Academy of Sciences. What she found agrees with Gaschak’s research, and tempers international excitement over a population boom in the zone.

“We looked through official state censuses of all hunted species, and it was interesting for us to not see a really big difference between the 1960s, 1980s, 1990s, and today. It was a stable structure—40, 50, 60 wolves, not more” on the Ukrainian side, she says. “Illegal hunting still influences it, so it’s a dynamic system, but it’s more or less stable.”

Indeed, the people living on the edge of the zone, even the poachers, are a good barometer to anecdotally measure increases in the number of wildlife, since animals do not need a pass to enter or leave the zone, as one villager put it.

“There are more animals now than there were 30 years ago. We have horse, deer, moose, wolves, boar, hare and others,” says Anatoly Tsiganenko, standing in the warm afternoon sun next to his neighbor’s oily motorcycle repair garage in the village of Radcha, just a mile from the border with Belarus and a few hundred yards from the edge of the exclusion zone. Last fall, he says, he saw a wolf walking through his neck of the village. He guesses it was around 140 pounds and stood well above his knees.

 

While it helps to confirm that there is more wildlife today than right before the accident, it also means there’s more poaching, especially on the Ukrainian side. A decree by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko that would convert the exclusion zone into a nature preserve aims to help solve that problem, though Ukrainian researchers fear it will in the end weaken the protected status.[1]

“Illegal fishing and hunting sometimes happens. It’s at their own risk to do this. Unfortunately, we cannot control all such cases,” says Hanna Vronska, the acting Minister of Ecology and Natural Resources of Ukraine, who hopes the new status will make it easier to raise money from international donors for more rangers.

While Beasley stops short of calling the landscape “ruined” by radioactive contamination, he knows that it will be there for centuries or millennia, in the case of plutonium. But, without humans around, his findings show that the wildlife seems to be doing all right.

“The preliminary density estimates that we are seeing suggest that in Chernobyl the density of wolves is much, much higher than even Yellowstone.”

[1] During the preparation of the article were used the materials of the site http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/04/060418-chernobyl-wildlife-thirty-year-anniversary-science/