CHERNOBYL: The sound was like nothing Tom Hinton had ever heard before: a chorus of baleful wolf howls, long and loud and coming from seemingly every direction in the darkness. The predators yipped and chirped and crooned to one another for what seemed like forever, sending a shiver of awe and intuitive fear down Hinton’s spine.“It was a primordial experience,” he said, something most of humanity hasn’t felt for tens of thousands of years. “That dates back to when humans were prey.”
It was only possible because of where Hinton was standing, a remote area along the Belarus-Ukraine border that’s been uninhabited by humans for decades.They all left in the wake of a very different sound nearly 30 years earlier: the massive explosion of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in 1986, which left dozens dead and drove more than 100,000 people from their homes across a 1,600-square-mile swath of Ukraine and Belarus. These days, abandoned apartment complexes are nothing more than crumbled concrete wrecks. Vines crawl up the decaying walls of old farmhouses and break unintended skylights into their roofs. No one lives in the post-apocalyptic setting.
No one human, that is. Wildlife populations there — shaggy-haired wild boar, long-legged elk, the howling choruses of wolves that so captivated Hinton last August — are flourishing.
That’s according to a study published Monday in the journal Current Biology, which found that mammal numbers in the exclusion zone are as high, if not higher, than in even the most protected parks in Belarus.“That wildlife started increasing when humans abandoned the area in 1986 is not earth-shattering news,” Hinton, a radioecology expert and co-author on the paper, told The Washington Post. “What’s surprising here was the life was able to increase even in an area that is among the most radioactively contaminated in the world.”
In other words, whatever the fallout from the disaster may have been, it turned out that the absence of humans was more than enough to compensate.“It shows I think that how much damage we do,” said fellow co-author Jim Smith, an environmental science professor at the University of Portsmouth. “It’s kind of obvious but our everyday activities associated with being in a place are what damages the environment.”“Not that radiation isn’t bad,” he added, “but what people do when they’re there is so much worse.”
The study is the first real census of wild animals in the exclusion zone. It relies on a decades worth of helicopter observations in the years right after the disaster, and three winters of scientists carefully counting animal tracks on foot between 2008 and 2010 in the Belarusian section of the zone.
Though animal numbers were low when scientists first started counting them in 1987 (because no data was taken before the disaster, they can’t tell to what degree the populations were hurt by the explosion), they rapidly rose once humans left the region. Brown bears and rare European lynx — predatory cats the size of a Great Dane with tufted ears and glimmering gold eyes — quickly appeared in the forests, even though they hadn’t been seen for decades before the accident. Wild boar took up residence in abandoned buildings. Forests replaced humans in the villages’ empty streets.
Within ten years, every animal population in the exclusion zone had at least doubled. At the same time, the kinds of species that were flourishing in the exclusion zone were vanishing from other parts of the former Soviet Union, likely due to increased hunting, poorer wildlife management and other economic changes.
By 2010, the last year of the on-foot census, the populations for most species were as large as in any of Belarus’ four national parks. For one species, the wolves, the population was seven times bigger.This indicates to researchers that chronic exposure to radiation from the explosion has had no impact on overall mammal populations. Whatever fallout may have come from the initial explosion was completely offset by the benefits of life without humans.
This doesn’t mean that the zone isn’t dangerous, Hinton stressed. He and his colleagues didn’t study the individual- and molecular-level damage caused by lingering contamination. While whole populations aren’t dying out, individual animals might be getting sick. And surveys have shown that the soil in areas close to the reactor site still exude radiation.But, “the environment is very resilient,” Hinton said.
The presence of wolves is particularly telling. As apex predators, they are a sign of the health of the entire ecosystem — if they’re flourishing, that means that every other level of species, from elk and deer on down to insects and plants, must also be healthy.