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Wildlife Found in Abundance at Chernobyl

A wolf in the exclusion zone at Chernobyl, site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster. (Image: Valeriy Yurko/T.G. Deryabina et al/Current Biology 2015)
A wolf in the exclusion zone at Chernobyl, site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster. (Image: Valeriy Yurko/T.G. Deryabina et al/Current Biology 2015)

It has been discovered that humans are more deadly to wildlife then nuclear disasters. The first long-term study at Chernobyl has raised some questions about the effect human activity has on nature.

In the wake of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant meltdown in 1986, the former Soviet-Communist regime set up the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (CEZ) — which covers 1600 square miles (4200 square kilometers). At the time, 116,000 people were forced to flee their homes and never return again.

An abandoned house near the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster area. (Image: Valeriy Yurko)

An abandoned house near the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster area. (Image: Valeriy Yurko/EurekAlert!)

Dr. Tatiana Deryabina, from the Polessye State Radioecological Reserve in Belarus, is the lead author of the study and said in a statement: “I’ve been working, studying, and taking photos of the wonderful wildlife in the Chernobyl area for over 20 years, and am very pleased our work is reaching an international scientific audience.”

A group of scientists from around the world, coordinated by Professor Jim Smith from the University of Portsmouth’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, have found that after 30 years, the Chernobyl site looks more like a nature reserve than a disaster zone.

Roe deer near where the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster took place. (Image: Valeriy Yurko)

Roe deer near where the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster took place. (Image: Valeriy Yurko/EurekAlert!)

Dr. Jim Beasley of the University of Georgia, and a co-author on the paper, said: “These unique data, showing a wide range of animals thriving within miles of a major nuclear accident, illustrate the resilience of wildlife populations when freed from the pressures of human habitation.”

Within the exclusion zone, researchers have found animal populations are thriving in the region, with an abundance of elk, roe deer, red deer, and wild boar. Their numbers are similar to that of nature reserves in the region, and the number of wolves in and around the Chernobyl site are more than seven times greater than in nature reserves.

Wild boar in a former village near the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. (Image: Valeriy Yurko)

A herd of wild boars in an abandoned village near the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. (Image: Valeriy Yurko/EurekAlert!)

“We know that radiation can be harmful in very high doses, but research on Chernobyl has shown that it isn’t as harmful as many people think. There have been many reports of abundant wildlife at Chernobyl, but this is the first large-scale study to prove how resilient they are,” Smith said in a statement.

It’s very likely that wildlife numbers at Chernobyl are much higher than they were before the accident.

“This doesn’t mean radiation is good for wildlife — just that the effects of human habitation, including hunting, farming, and forestry, are a lot worse,” he added.

Helicopter surveys revealed that populations of elk, roe deer, and wild boar were on the rise between 1 and 10 years after the nuclear accident. The wild boar population at one point dropped, but it was found to be from a disease outbreak that was unrelated to radiation exposure.

The researchers conclude: “These results demonstrate for the first time that — regardless of potential radiation effects on individual animals — the CEZ supports an abundant mammal community after nearly three decades of chronic radiation exposure.”

Professor Tom Hinton of Fukushima University in Japan, the site of the second-worst nuclear disaster, is co-author of the study. He said: “These remarkable data from Chernobyl will help us understand the potential long-term environmental impact of the Fukushima accident.”

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