Wildlife thrives around Chernobyl disaster site

‘This doesn’t mean radiation is good for wildlife, just that the effects of human habitation … are a lot worse’

A family of moose roams free in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Credit Valeriy Yurko/Polessye State Radioecological Reserve
A family of moose in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
Credit: Valeriy Yurko/Polessye State Radioecological Reserve.

Staff Report

Wildlife is thriving in the area around Chernobyl, researchers said in a new study tracking the number of moose, roe deer, red deer, wild boar and wolves in the 1,621-square-mile Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

The census data shows there are seven times as many wolves in the area than in nearby uncontaminated reserves, along with growing populations of other species. The area was cleared of humans after a 1986 nuclear reactor disaster that polluted the immediate area, as well as distant fallout zones, with radioactive particles.

“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,” said Jim Smith, a professor of environmental science at the University of Portsmouth in the U.K.Publishing their findings in the journal Current Biology, the researchers report the site looks more like a nature preserve than a disaster zone, with abundant with abundant wildlife nearly 30 years after the world’s largest nuclear accident.

Previous studies in the 1,621-square-mile Chernobyl Exclusion Zone showed evidence of major radiation effects and significantly reduced populations of wildlife. For the first time since the Chernobyl accident, researchers have long-term census data that reveal thriving wildlife populations in the zone.

“Our data are a testament to the resiliency of wildlife when freed from direct human pressures such as habitat loss, fragmentation and persecution,” said James Beasley, assistant professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Georgia Savannah River Ecology Laboratory and the Warnell School Forestry and Natural Resources, a co-author on the study. “The multi-year data clearly show that a multitude of wildlife species are abundant throughout the zone, regardless of the level of radiation contamination.”

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