Wildlife is thriving in Fukushima evacuation zones (video)

serow
© Japanese serow / UGA

A lesson in what happens when the humans disappear.

"Anthropogenic land use has profoundly affected much of Earth’s terrestrial surface, contributing to widespread species extinctions, loss of biodiversity, and cascading effects on ecosystems," begins a new study from the University of Georgia. "These effects of land-use change are expected to worsen as the human population continues to grow."

Sounds pretty grim, right? And it is, but the authors go on to point out that some ecosystems have demonstrated marked resilience when freed from such manmade pressures.

This usually is the result of conservation efforts, but sometimes the world works in the most ironic of ways. As the the UGA researchers found, nearly a decade after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident on March 11, 2011, wildlife populations are abundant in areas void of human life.

And we've seen this movie before, Chernobyl has become an "accidental wildlife sanctuary" teeming with animals. There are even wildlife tours there now.

UGA wildlife biologist James Beasley says that people have been wondering for years about the status of wildlife after nuclear accidents like those in Chernobyl and Fukushima – and his team's research is an effort to answer some of the mysteries.

"Our results represent the first evidence that numerous species of wildlife are now abundant throughout the Fukushima Evacuation Zone, despite the presence of radiological contamination," says Beasley, associate professor at the Savannah River Ecology Laboratory and the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources.

The team, which also included Thomas Hinton, professor at the Institute of Environmental Radioactivity at Fukushima University, used photo data from 106 camera sites from three zones: humans excluded; humans restricted; and humans inhabited.

They included animals for which they observed at least 80 individuals, and the menagerie includes everything from wild boar, raccoon dogs, Japanese hares, and macaques to raccoons, masked palm civet, Japanese badger, serow, and red fox.

racoon dog© Racoon dog / UGA

macaque© Macaques / UGA

Species that are often in conflict with people, especially wild boar, were mostly seen on camera in human-evacuated areas or zones; over 26,000 wild boar images were taken in the uninhabited area, compared to some 13,000 in the restricted and 7,000 in the inhabited zones.

"This suggests these species have increased in abundance following the evacuation of people," says Beasley. Other animals flocking to uninhabited or restricted zones included the raccoons, Japanese marten and Japanese monkeys.

Of course the question of the hour is this: How are the animals doing? Alas, this study was not intended to address health and radiation, but rather to check in on population numbers.

"This research makes an important contribution because it examines radiological impacts to populations of wildlife, whereas most previous studies have looked for effects to individual animals," says Hinton.

It's hard to say what the future holds for animals living in these wrecked oases – but can it be any worse than being rendered extinct by anthropogenic land-use? I say, let the rewilding begin.

The study was published in the Journal of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

Wildlife is thriving in Fukushima evacuation zones (video)
A lesson in what happens when the humans disappear.

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