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Has Chernobyl, Nuclear Disaster Site, Become A Haven For Wild Animals?

Animals in History | May 31, 2021

A photo taken on January 22, 2016 shows wild Przewalski's horses on a snow covered field in the Chernobyl exclusions zone. (Getty Images)

On April 26, 1986, a nuclear meltdown at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant led to the worst nuclear disaster in world history, expelling 400 times more radioactive material than the Hiroshima bomb and leaving over 1,000 square miles of Earth uninhabitable for human life. But what about wildlife? Clearly, they didn't get the memo about the adverse effects of nuclear fallout. Since the catastrophe, the area around the defunct power plant has been teeming with animals and plants.

Nature Is Healing

Of course, initially, the radioactivity wiped out most animals, even the invertebrates living in the soil, but despite the half-life of nuclear fallout being around 30 years, it seems that it only took several months for animals to begin feeling well enough to reenter the area. Over the next decade, animals began not only living but thriving in the abandoned towns of Belarus, with large animals like boar, elk, and deer doing especially well. Predator species like the grey wolf, raccoon dogs, lynx, and red fox have blossomed in the forgotten forests, as they no longer have humans to contend with.

This photo was taken from a helicopter several months after the explosion. The destroyed Chernobyl reactor, one of four units operating at the site in Ukraine in 1986. No units operate today. (Chernobyl, Ukraine, 1986). (IAEA Imagebank/Wikimedia Commons)

Is Chernobyl Safe For Animals?

But are these animals healthy? After all, the effects of radiation on humans can range from short-term effects like nausea and fatigue to long-term effects like cancer. Radiation poisoning itself is an extremely fatal and painful disease, as first witnessed in young physicist Harry Daughlin, who developed large blisters, intense abdominal pain, and a rapid heartbeat after dropping a tungsten carbide brick into the plutonium "demon core" during the Manhattan Project. He was dead only 25 days after initial exposure.

Clearly, these rambunctious beasts frolicking around the defunct power plant are not suffering from radiation poisoning, but that doesn't mean there aren't other health concerns. Presently, scientists have only been able to track the diversity and number of animals in the Exclusion Zone, not their health or life span. However, the teams studying these Chernobyl critters have expressed the desire to better monitor their health and the effect, if any, the radiation is having, as that would obviously be beneficial information in case of a future catastrophe.

European Bison. Valchi Dol reserve in Bulgaria. (Анна Василева/Wikimedia Commons)

Flourishing In Chernobyl

In 1988, the Polesie State Radioecological Reserve was created to monitor the land around Chernobyl and remains one of the largest nature preserves in all of Europe. In 1996, a little over a dozen European bison, once on the brink of extinction, were introduced to the reserve and now boast a population of around 150. Conservationists hope to recreate this success with the wild horse population. However, the animals may find their freedom from humans to be short lived, as people just can't seem to keep away from the ruins despite their radioactive status. Though it is technically illegal to live there, an estimated 200–400 people currently reside in the Exclusion Zone and aren't planning to leave anytime soon.

In fact, thrill-seeking adventurers can pay for a tour inside the Zone, where they carry dosimeters to keep track of radiation levels and their cumulative effect. It may sound wacky, but a few hours inside ghost towns like Pripyat result in less exposure than an X-ray or C.T. scan at the doctor's office. Over the years, Ukraine has turned Pripyat into a tourist goldmine, boasting unparalleled wildlife-watching and even the occasional rave. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Ukraine even created a flyover experience, taking visitors to the "minimum allowable height" over the Chernobyl site itself to mark the meltdown's 35th anniversary, just in case life wasn't dreary enough. Regardless, the animal takeover is probably here to stay, as it will take an estimated 20,000 years for the region to fully recover from that infamous day.

Tags: animals | chernobyl disaster facts | chernobyl ghost city

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