What do you do when a nuclear power plant explodes and deadly radiation spreads for hundreds of miles in smoke and dust, air and water? Obvious, isn’t it – you rush to evacuate everyone living in the area. We’d like to hope people would manage to take their companion animals along with them too. Once this is done, you set up an exclusion zone over the contaminated area, so no-one can put themselves in danger by going back in there.
It goes without saying that wild animals can’t be evacuated. And no matter how many signs you put up and checkpoints you install, they just don’t get exclusion zones. So what if you were to go back into that still heavily-contaminated area 30 years after the event, what would you expect to see? A barren wasteland? Animal corpses and skeletons? Or maybe worse still, horrible mutations?
But writer for the National Geographic John Wendle, who did just that, was in for a surprise:-
It may seem strange that Chernobyl, an area known for the deadliest nuclear accident in history, could become a refuge for all kinds of animals — from moose, deer, beaver, and owls to more exotic species like brown bear, lynx, and wolves — but that is exactly what [some] scientists think has happened.
Walking along sandy firebreaks used as forest highways with wolf expert Marina 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.
Research scientist Sergey Gaschak says, “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.
John saw evidence of recent beaver activity everywhere. Which is good news, because the beaver has a beneficial influence on the ecology: “In Ukraine it is exactly like the elephant in Africa: it completely changes the look of the landscape.” Eventually, as they fell more trees, the beavers will return the land to bogs, as it was 100 years ago.
As for wolves, biologist Jim Beasley tells John that, “The preliminary density estimates that we are seeing suggest that in Chernobyl the density of wolves is much, much higher than even Yellowstone.”
At more than 1600 square miles, the Chernobyl exclusion zone has become one of the largest truly wild sanctuaries in Europe.
All this is not to say that the Chernobyl animals are immune to the effects of radiation. To what degree each animal is affected is determined by the concentrations in its habitat, and on its diet and behaviours. Voles for instance have been found to have a higher than normal incidence of cataracts. Voles love mushrooms, and mushrooms concentrate radiation. For other animals voles are part of the diet, so no doubt they are affected too, though which animals, and to what extent they are affected, is a matter of much contention amongst scientists.
The surprise though, is the abundance of just about every species that called Chernobyl home before the disaster. And that is down to the absence of the most dangerous species of all – Man.
Jim Beasley published his new study just last month, and he concluded that: ‘Without people hunting them or ruining their habitat, wildlife is thriving despite high radiation levels.”
In the exclusion zone, humans have been removed from the system and this greatly overshadows any of those potential radiation effects.
Isn’t this Chernobyl story a powerful statement of the utter tenacity of life in the face of the worst the human race can throw at it?
And too, a powerful indictment of us and the blight we have become on Planet Earth. If animals could choose which they prefer, a territory shared with humans or one contaminated with high levels of radiation, it seems they would not choose to be around us.
Maybe one day they won’t have to put up with either.
Source: The National Geographic Conclusions my own.
More info from the Daily Mail here
18th May 2016 News of study that shows some bird populations affected by cataracts caused by radiation.
30th November 2016 China is building a huge solar plant at Chernobyl – ZME Science
8th Jan 2020 Further reading about Fukushima Wildlife is doing just fine at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster site