Animals Rule Chernobyl 30 Years After Nuclear Disaster

Video highlights from Seconds From Disaster

On the 30th anniversary of the catastrophic accident, it’s not certain how radiation is affecting wildlife – but it’s clear that animals abound.

Marina Shkvyria watches for animal tracks as she walks toward an abandoned village in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the area sealed to the public after a nuclear power plant exploded here 30 years ago, on April 26, 1986.

Spotting one, she crouches and runs her finger over the toes of a wolf print in the loose sand.

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 Shkvyria and some other scientists think has happened.

Without people hunting them or ruining their habitat, the thinking goes, wildlife is thriving despite high radiation levels.

Shkvyria is a wolf expert at the Ukraine’s National Academy of Sciences, and one of a handful of scientists following the fate of Chernobyl’s wildlife. She discovered the wolf pack near the village using unorthodox, but cheap, methods.

“We came down here late last spring and howled, and the young wolf pups howled back from the top of that hill,” she says with a mischievous smile.

So far, scientists are divided on how well the animals are really doing in the exclusion zone, which straddles Ukraine and Belarus, says biologist Jim Beasley of the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory, who has been studying wolves there with grant support from the National Geographic Society Committee for Research and Exploration.

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.

In a new study released Monday, Beasley says that the population of large mammals on the Belarus side has increased since the disaster. He was shocked by the number of animals he saw there in a five-week survey. Camera traps captured images of a bison, 21 boars, nine badgers, 26 gray wolves, 60 raccoon dogs (an Asian species also called a tanuki), and 10 red foxes. “It’s just incredible. You can’t go anywhere without seeing wolves,” he says.

Radiation, he argues in the study, is not holding back Chernobyl wildlife populations.

LEARN MORE: Chernobyl's Radioactive Ruins Get A New Tomb

Signs of Life

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.

Debate Continues

The combined territory of the exclusion zones in Ukraine and Belarus caused by the Chernobyl disaster is a little more than 2,500 square kilometres, 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.

 Story by John Wendle

Photos by Gerd Ludwig, National Geographic Creative

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