Hope for wildlife of Chernobyl

 

On the 26th April 1986 a nuclear accident took place that shocked the world. Reactor four at the Chernobyl power plant exploded killing many people and forcing over 100,000 civilians to flee, following this a further 220,000 residents were resettled leaving 42,000km2 abandoned, this is now known as the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (CEZ). In the thirty years that followed humans have rarely reentered.

 

Before the accident local wildlife had to fight to survive, cohabiting with humans is not easy and human activities such as hunting, agriculture and forestry can have disastrous effects on population numbers. For the six months after the accident the wildlife suffered due to the radioactivity, overall health and reproduction declined and with that so did population numbers. 1-10 years post accident populations started to recover and numbers were on the rise. Now there is an established and abundant wildlife community.

 

The largest long term census study of the animals living there has recently been published. The surprising findings show that despite the exposure to radiation the undisturbed wildlife seems to be thriving. The danger previously posed by human habitation seems to exceed the current danger of radioactivity.

 

Whatever negative effects there are from radiation, they are not as large as the negative effects of having people there; Jim Smith, co-author from the University of Portsmouth.

Photo of mother elk and her young in the CEZ, credit to Vasily Fedosenko

Photo of mother elk and her young in the CEZ, credit to Vasily Fedosenko

The team combined data from helicopter surveys and animal track surveys and compared this with population numbers in four nature reserves of similar size and habitat which had not been exposed to radiation. Population estimates of roe deer, elk, red deer and wild boar were similar across sites.

However it was a different story for the carnivorous mammals; numbers of the rare Eurasian lynx were higher within the CEZ and populations of wolves were on average seven times larger than the other nature reserves and a whopping 19 times larger than the neighboring Bryansky Forest Reserve only 250 km away.

Graph showing the population estimates of certain species in the CEZ over several years, published in the original paper http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2015.08.017

Graph showing the population estimates of certain species in the CEZ over several years, published in the original paper http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2015.08.017

This latest study has focused on large mammals in the Belarus area, however other studies have been published supporting the conclusion that wildlife generally is doing well. Robert Baker, of the Texas Tech University, looked at small mammals and found populations to be stable. A five year research programme known as TREE (Transfer, Exposure, Effects) is still underway in Ukraine but initial findings from camera traps are very promising and the rare European Brown Bear has even been sighted roaming the forests. Now researcher Tom Hinton is turning to the site of Fukushima in the hope of seeing similar wildlife trends.

 

The tragedy of Chernobyl will leave permanent scars but for the local wildlife this radioactive haven could prove a lifeline, it ‘illustrates the resilience of wildlife populations when freed from the pressures of human habitation’.

Photo by Sergey Gaschak

Photo by Sergey Gaschak

For more information take a look at the new study published in Current Biology

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Madeleine Berry

Wildlife enthusiast and recent Biology graduate of Queen Mary, University of London.

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