Anyone who has ever seen pictures of Chernobyl or Pripyat or has been there knows how unnerving it is. There is nothing more sinister than an abandoned building that has been left in great haste. All the inhabitant’s possessions: books, furniture, TV sets, is still there, slowly decaying. Roofs have collapsed and plants and trees have taken over. When the nuclear reactor 4 of Chernobyl exploded in April 1986, all inhabitants of the area were instantly evacuated and an exclusion zone of currently 2.600 kilometres was set up. It was declared unfit for humans. Until this day, the zone has been left behind exactly like it was 27 years ago.
A documentary on YouTube shows what the area is like today. With the absence of humans, nature is flourishing. There are beavers, wolves, waterfowl, fish, bears, even wild horses. They live amongst the ruins and abandoned houses. This is what the world would look like after the apocalypse.
What the documentary makers were looking for were radioactive wolves. They captured two young wolves, tracked them for several months and measured their radiation levels. Everything in the area, from the soil to the water to the animals themselves, was highly radioactive. And yet there didn’t seem to be any direct signs of abnormalities. In fact, the animals were healthy, the ecosystem was perfectly balanced and populations were stable. In the infamous Red Forest, which turned the pine trees red after it was hit with massive amounts of radiation, the dormice showed slight mutations, but were nevertheless doing very well. It seems that nature, unlike humans, is resilient to radioactivity. The forest, by the way, is now green again due to growing birch trees.
The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone lies across the border of Ukraine and Belarus. With humans gone, nature has taken over the area completely and turned it into a wildlife reserve unlike anything else. Rare flora and fauna have returned or have been re-introduced. Fish swim in the contaminated water. Wild boars roam in the deserted houses. Birds even fly in and out of the large sarcophagus surrounding the reactor, and eagles build nests in the old fire towers.
When the disaster happened, the area surrounding Chernobyl, Polesia, was anything but wild. The Pinsk Marshes, of which a large part is now contaminated, were once the biggest marshes of Europe. They consisted of dense woods mixed with marsh, ponds, moors and streams and were almost inaccessible for humans.
But huge parts were drained and cut down in early Soviet Union times to be used for Stalin’s collective farms, and it became one of the most vital agricultural areas of the U.S.S.R. Animals that prevented farming were hunted upon, such as the beaver and the grey wolf. The land outside the zone still looks like this, but inside nature has been at work.
The beavers in particular have played a huge part in restoring the wildlife. By damming up all the former irrigation canals and digging underneath the dykes, they have – somehow - managed to restore almost the entire ecosystem. It is thanks to them that the marshes have returned, and with it all the wildlife that used to live there, like moose, insects, otters, waterfowl and shellfish, amongst many, many others. And all of this has happened much faster than anyone thought. In 1998, a herd of wild Przewalski horses were introduced to the area to help restore the ecosystem even faster. Przewalski horses were once indigenous to Mongolia and most of Eastern Europe, but are now extremely rare.
It seems almost too good to be true, a disaster area without humans where animals are living healthily and in peace, and some people think it is. For one thing, the population numbers of the wild horses have been dwindling over the past few years – from human poaching, in fact. That’s right, even in the zone they can’t escape from people. It is down to a minimum if you compare it to the rest of the world, but even there it is happening. Some people have pointed towards the few poverty-stricken people still living in the area who refused to leave or have returned. There is no evidence that radiation has killed the horses. The other possibility might be the wolves.
Secondly, nobody knows exactly how different the animals in the zone are from species outside it. Research has shown that everything in the area is contaminated, embedded in the soil and the trees. A study of swallows revealed that many birds in the area had deformities such as partial albinism, deformed beaks and smaller brains, but these are one of few mutations known. Smaller animals seem to be more affected, such as the dormice and the swallows, or another study of stag beetles that had uneven horns.
The mutations are there, but they aren’t severe. (If you clicked on this article hoping for a story about three-headed wolves or glow-in-the-dark grizzly bears, you will by now be disappointed). Most animals in the wild that do have severe mutations die or get eaten before they get a chance to reproduce. Natural selection at its best. The populations of Chernobyl can, in conclusion, be considered healthy and thriving.
This documentary made me think about how strange it all is. How is it that animals are able to live a normal life in the zone and withstand the radiation, while it is so dangerous for humans? The documentary doesn’t go into detail about this. Maybe it is due to an evolutionary response. The only thing we know, is that a human disaster somehow gave nature a new chance. It is a safe haven for animals, the only place on earth we cannot touch anymore. In a strange twist of fate, our loss has become their refuge.