Tracking wildlife in Chernobyl: The emotional landscape of a disaster zone

Mammals are thriving among the vestiges of nuclear disaster. It’s fraught work for the researchers who study them.

Valeriy Yurko

Valeriy Yurko

Nature is taking back Chernobyl.

Three decades after a flawed nuclear reactor spewed radioactive material over 200 towns and villages across the borders of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia, trees grow through abandoned houses, owls hoot from rafters, and boar nest in old barns.

A handful of scientists study this ecosystem firsthand. In October, a collaboration of American, Belarusian, and English researchers published the first study finding that large mammals are likely doing better than they were before the accident. Populations rebounded and grew, even in the first years after the disaster. Today, numbers of elk, deer, and wild boar are comparable to those in regional reserves.

Valeriy Yurko

Valeriy Yurko

The effects of radiation on general animal communities are still somewhat unclear. Brown frogs and barn swallows showed evidence of genetic abnormalities in ecosystems close to the reactor, but in eight of Chernobyl’s lakes and streams, heavily irradiated areas did not have fewer species of fish or water bugs than less-contaminated sites. Research has indicated no significant pattern between radiation levels and aquatic species diversity.

That’s not to say that nuclear disasters are good for wildlife, scientists caution. But humans, it seems, were worse than radiation. For researchers working in the Exclusion Zone today, that can be an emotional irony.

“It’s an obvious point really— we’re not good for the environment,” said Jim Smith, an environmental physicist at the University of Portsmouth in the UK and coauthor of the recent study. “I think Chernobyl illustrates it— I can’t think in a more dramatic way.”

Tatyana Deryabina

Tatyana Deryabina

Nearly 350,000 people were evacuated from the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. When they left, animals were freed from the human pressures of hunting, forestry, and fishing. Although caused by disastrous means, the agricultural ecosystem rebounded, Smith explained.

Habitat loss and fragmentation were two big consequences of Chernobyl’s agricultural economy in the years before the accident, added James Beasley, a wildlife biologist at the University of Georgia and coauthor of the recent study. Farms cut into forest, giving the animals nowhere to go.

Now that the people are gone, wildlife has bounced back. Emotionally, that’s a hard landscape for scientists to navigate.

“The first years working in the reserve I felt compassion toward the people that were forced to leave their small homeland,” said lead author Tatyana Deryabina, a wildlife ecologist based at Polesie State Radioecological Reserve in Belarus. But “Over the years, observing the wildlife in this area abandoned by people, this feeling was replaced by another. I thought more about the animals.”

Valeriy Lukashevitch

Valeriy Lukashevitch

Deryabina has worked in Chernobyl for 14 years. When humans disappeared, so did the pressure they put on wildlife, she says. “I was even glad there are no people, and animals have a piece of land where they can feel like home.”

To read the rest of the piece in Hawkmoth magazine, click here.

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