Camera study confirms wildlife is flourishing at Chernobyl

Chernobyl
© National Geographic/Jim Beasley/Sarah Webster

Earlier research found evidence of a wildlife wonderland at the disaster site, now the first camera study confirms an abundance of wolves, boars, foxes and more.

Last year we wrote about life at the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone – the 834-square mile area in Ukraine that has remained ominously void of human presence ever since the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant accident in 1986. How strange and magical it was to learn that rather than a disaster wasteland, nature has crept back in to right the wrongs. Without man present, the study found that the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident has become a nature reserve rife with elk, roe deer, red deer, wild boar, foxes, wolves, and others:

"It's very likely that wildlife numbers at Chernobyl are much higher than they were before the accident," says Jim Smith of the University of Portsmouth in the UK. "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."

Now a new camera study by researchers from the University of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Laboratory further confirm the findings that wildlife populations are abundant at the site. It is the first remote-camera scent-station survey conducted within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (CEZ). The study documents species prevalent in the zone and supports the earlier conclusion that animal distribution is not influenced by radiation levels

The first study relied on the counting of animal tracks; for the new study, James Beasley and his research team employed 30 cameras at 94 sites over a five-week period.

"The earlier study shed light on the status of wildlife populations in the CEZ, but we still needed to back that up," says Beasley, an assistant professor with UGA's Savannah River Ecology Laboratory and lead author of the research. "For this study we deployed cameras in a systematic way across the entire Belarus section of the CEZ and captured photographic evidence – strong evidence – because these are pictures that everyone can see."

The remote cameras were set up on trees or similar structures; the stations each used a fatty acid scent to attract the animals. With a minimum distance of two miles from each other, the cameras were arranged to prevent animals from being recorded at more than one station during a 24-hour period.

All told, the team documented 14 species of mammals on the camera footage. The most frequently seen were the gray wolf, Eurasian boar, red fox and raccoon dog. The earlier study also noted a rare Przewalski's horse and European lynx, which were previously gone from the region but have now returned, as well as a European brown bear, an animal not seen in those parts for more than a century.

And remarkably, Beasley says that the species documented on film were at stations close to or within the most highly contaminated areas.

"We didn't find any evidence to support the idea that populations are suppressed in highly contaminated areas," Beasley said. "What we did find was these animals were more likely to be found in areas of preferred habitat that have the things they need – food and water."

The study provides valuable verification, Beasley says, but further research is needed "to determine the density of wildlife and provide quantitative survival rates." Meanwhile, the wolves and foxes are running free, roaming the wilds and reclaiming land lost to man and consequently found once again by nature.

Chernoble wolves© Sergey Gashchak/Chernobyl Centre

See more images like the one above and read about the previous findings here: Wildlife is absolutely thriving at Chernobyl disaster site.

Tags: Animals | Nuclear Power | Russia

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