Chernobyl is now a haven for rare and endangered species

Chernobyl is no longer a place for humans to call home, but several rare and endangered species have dared to call it home and are thriving in the years since a nuclear disaster forced people to abandon the area in 1986.

When the Chernobyl nuclear power plant suffered a catastrophic radioactive meltdown, a entire modern city was abandoned overnight. Pripyat had been a jewel of the Soviet Union at the time. And then everything changed when the number 4 reactor suffered an explosion.

Humans were evacuated and 19 miles in every direction from the site has reverted back to nature and is known as the “exclusion zone” located in present-day Belarus and Ukraine.

Very few people have chosen to remain living in the area, which means animals don’t have to compete with humans for resources and can flourish without interference.

And that’s why the area has become an ideal habitat for several rare and endangered species, including Przewalski’s horse, the European lynx and the European brown bear.

In fact, Belarus has turned part of the area into a popular wildlife reserve known as the Palieski reserve.

According to The Guardian:

The reserve claims to be Europe’s largest experiment in rewilding, and the unlikely beneficiaries of nuclear disaster have been the wolves, bison and bears that now roam the depopulated landscape, and the 231 (of the country’s 334) bird species that can also be found here.

Indeed, eco-tour company APB-Birdlife Belarus refers to the reserve as a beautiful accident.

“The accident at Chernobyl nuclear power plant resulted in complete abandonment of a huge territory in Belarus as well as land on the Ukrainian side, creating the largest ever experiment as to what nature does when people leave. 30 years later the area is the nearest that Europe has to a wilderness and gives key lessons on how wildlife doesn’t need us! The zone is a classic example of an involuntary park. Its beauty cannot be overstated.”

Wildlife tours are popular and the area now stands as an example of how nature can flourish if humans just leave it alone.

The same effect can also be seen within the Korean demilitarized zone (DMZ), which is off limits to most humans unless you are a scientist with special permission to study the area.

The difference is that while the DMZ is littered with unexploded landmines, the Chernobyl exclusion zone is radioactive, which one would think would be deadly to any animals brave enough to move in, but the effects of the radiation appear to be minimal or not noticeable at all.

Some research has found troubling signs of fallout-related disease and mutation, but another study recorded large populations of mammals in the zone. We don’t yet have the full picture, according to Viktar Fenchuk, project manager for the Wilderness Conservation Program in Belarus, and one of the country’s most senior conservationists. The reserve “could be an ecological ‘trap’, where animals move in […] and then develop health problems,” he tells me. “But the evidence so far is that on a population level, the effect of radiation is not visible.”

It’s the wildlife refuge that was not planned. Had the Chernobyl disaster never occurred, these animals may have become extinct already. Instead, they are not only surviving, but thriving in a place where humans can only spend a few hours before they have to leave.

And the zone will be a long-term study of wildlife well beyond our lifetime because Ukrainian officials estimate it won’t be habitable for humans again for 20,000 years. That means the various species now calling the area home are safe from human interference for a long time to come and humans will be able to enjoy the wildlife for generations.

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Stephen D. Foster Jr.

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