Since the explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in 1986 caused an international disaster and ejected radioactive particles into the air that could be detected right across Europe, the land surrounding the site has been abandoned and never resettled.
Despite many studies on the ecological impact of the disaster, it’s been difficult to get a consensus on the effect the radiation had on wildlife, with early reports suggesting major impacts of the radiation and significant reductions of wildlife populations. But a recent study, analyzing long-term population trends of multiple species found within proximity to the site, has shown that the place is teeming with animals, and looks more like a nature reserve than a nuclear disaster zone.
“It's very likely that wildlife numbers at Chernobyl are much higher than they were before the accident,” explained Jim Smith, of the University of Portsmouth, in a statement. Smith is a coauthor of the study, which published in Current Biology. “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.”
Wildlife populations are now as high within the CEZ as in other national reserves. Tatyana Deryabina
The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (CEZ) covers 4,200 square kilometers (1,600 square miles), and encompasses parts of both Belarus and Ukraine. Immediately after the disaster, all people living permanently within this area – around 116,000 in total – were forced to leave and have never been allowed to return. Recent studies in the Ukrainian part of the CEZ using camera traps have shown that wildlife populations seem to be doing unexpectedly well, and have even recorded the tantalizing glimpse of a brown bear in the region.
But the results of long-term wildlife observations have been a little mixed. For example, one study conducted in 2010 based on just under four years of data concluded that biodiversity was declining, and that contamination had had a “significant impact.” This new study, however, has been able to draw on around ten years of observations, with the researchers finding that the larger data set does not support these earlier conclusions.
More than 116,000 people had to leave the CEZ, and have never been allowed to return. Valeriy Yurko
The researchers counted the number of tracks and what species they belonged during winter surveys, along with collecting data on the radiocaesium contamination across the study site. They found that there was zero correlation between the levels of radioactivity and the density of wildlife living in that area.
In fact, they found that after the event, while in other parts of Europe numbers of species such as wild boar and moose were declining as the Soviet Union broke up, around Chernobyl the populations of these animals were actually increasing. Today, they found that while the numbers of moose, wild boar, red deer and roe deer have reached the same as that observed in uncontaminated national reserves in the surrounding region, the number of wolves is actually seven times higher in the CEZ.
This suggests that the pressures of human habitation on surrounding wildlife is a major limiting factor, especially for predators. The data also shows just how resilient wildlife populations are, even if faced with a major nuclear disaster.