More than 30 years after the world’s worst nuclear accident, the area around Chernobyl has evolved from a disaster zone into a nature reserve, teeming with bison, moose and wolves.
The remarkable turnaround in the area, which was declared a permanent no-go zone for people after the accident in 1986, suggests radiation contamination is not hindering wildlife from breeding and thriving, but underscores the negative impact humans have on populations of wild mammals.
“When humans are removed, nature flourishes—even in the wake of the world’s worst nuclear accident,” Jim Smith, a specialist in earth and environmental sciences at Britain’s University of Portsmouth, told Reuters. “It’s very likely that wildlife numbers at Chernobyl are now much higher than they were before the accident.”
On April 26, 1986, a fire and explosion at the nuclear plant in Ukraine, then a Soviet republic, sent clouds of radioactive material across large swathes of Europe. Thousands of people left the area, never to return. Smith and co-researchers took the opportunity to see what happens to wildlife in an area where contamination is heavy but people are largely absent.
Earlier studies in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone showed major radiation effects and pronounced reductions in wildlife populations. But later evidence, based on long-term census data, showed that mammal populations have bounced back.
The 2015 study published in the journal Current Biology found a relative abundance of elk, roe deer, red deer and wild boar—with population rates similar to those found in four designated, and uncontaminated, nature reserves in the region. The number of wolves living in and around the Chernobyl site is more than seven times greater than can be found in comparable nature reserves.
Abandoned villages marked with yellow and red radiation warning signs have become hunting grounds for predators such as wolves and hawks. Birds, including tawny owls and magpies, nest in the roofs and chimneys of crumbling buildings.
This Newsweek gallery—featuring images taken between 2009 and 2017—showcases wildlife roaming the forests around Chernobyl, while stray cats and dogs scavenge for food in the abandoned city of Pripyat.
— Reuters contributed to this report.
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