Chernobyl: A potential wildlife oasis

Chernobyl: A grotesque Disneyland, but also a new wildlife oasis
Chernobyl: A grotesque Disneyland, but also a new wildlife oasis

On April 26th, 1986, the Unit 4 reactor of the Chernobyl nuclear power station, located eight miles north of Kiev in the former USSR exploded. It was the worst nuclear disaster the world has ever experienced. It released catastrophic amounts of radioactive material into the environment, which spread over Ukraine, Belarus and as far away as Western Europe. The impact caused a global reaction, while people in the region suffered and continue to suffer physically, mentally and financially.  

The town of Pripyat was built for the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the mid-seventies. People who lived there – 49,000 in all – were evacuated, but not given any indication that they would never be able to return. They were permitted few possessions for fear of contamination. In the days following the disaster, the rain was torrential, bringing back radioactive dust to the abandoned city, which settled in a blanket leaving a radioactive dead zone. 

The death toll stands at 31 direct deaths (some sources state 49) however it is widely disputed as to the true number of casualties, particularly as people are continuing to suffer the horrifying effects of radiation exposure in relation to cancers and leukaemia several generations later. The UN estimates 4000 people have died prematurely as a result. It has been reported that the impact zone will not be habitable to humans for a further 20,000 years due to the high levels of radiation that remains. However, other sources state 180-320 years 

A surprising outcome, noted by scientists and environmentalists alike, is the thriving wildlife population on the outskirts of the city, the area has become a refuge for Elk, Deer, Wolves, Boars, even Brown Bears have reappeared. With no industry, traffic or hunters, nature has begun to reclaim the land as the forest creeps slowly in providing a unique sanctuary. The plant life is flourishing, providing food for the insects and endangered species, over 40 of which are listed as endangered are continuing to thrive within this haven. There are 270 different bird species nesting in the vicinity. In 1998, Przewalski horses were introduced by conservationists as the region became a sanctuary for the species. 

A new haven for the endangered Przewalski horse.
A new haven for the endangered Przewalski horse.

When the people evacuated, the resident’s cats remained, becoming feral over time. several generations of former house cats still roam this region, hunting rodents and sheltering within the ruined buildings.  As the natural life span of the wildlife is so much shorter than humans, it could explain why the animals are not developing tumours. However, there is still no agreement as to the long-term effects. For now, nature triumphs. There have been fewer cases of genetic mutation than expected. The most obvious example is observed in a species of Barn Swallow. The plumage of individuals has changed colouration. This appears to make them less attractive to other Barn Swallows and this reduces their breeding chances. Natural selection tends to remove individuals with aberrant phenotypes. This fabled lost city, which stands as an abandoned testament to the effects of nuclear disaster continues to confound expectations. 

Chernobyl’s Exclusion zone opened to visitors in 1999 but closed several times over disputes regarding legal regulations. The region has been looted numerous times, with more expensive household items being taken shortly after the evacuation, many years later, the steel beams and other debris that possessed a resale value were also stripped away. 

With an interest in extreme tourism and urban exploration photography, it is a region I am interested in visiting, it’s post nuclear landscape is widely regarded as a Mecca for photographers. However, further research into guided tours of Pripyat and learning of the sheer volume of visitors over the years has somewhat dispelled my vision of a ghost town, with objects left as they were, frozen in time when the inhabitants evacuated. The haunting images online of the children’s dolls stacked neatly on beds, gas masks hanging from ceilings etc would suggest tourists and perhaps guides themselves have arranged some of the remaining objects and decaying debris to capture a particularly ghoulish photograph. Perhaps less a Mecca and more a grotesque Disneyland. 

Victoria Protheroe
About Victoria Protheroe 2 Articles
With a lifelong love of nature and wildlife and a Master’s degree in research, Victoria Protheroe enjoys spending her free time combining these interests to explore new areas of wildlife research and conservation. Her current area of interest is with reptile care, specifically snake husbandry.

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