Chernobyl Zone — Europe’s Largest Wildlife Refuge?

Posted April 25th, 2011 at 4:00 pm (UTC+0)

Japan has imposed a 20-kilometer exclusion zone around Fukushima nuclear power complex, banning human habitation for the foreseeable future.

April 26, marks the 25th anniversary of the worst nuclear accident on record, the explosion of the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, Ukraine. The fate of 4,500 square kilometer exclusion zone around the old Soviet plant may give a glimpse into future of the area now banned for human habitation around Fukushima.

A hunter chases a fox just outside the 19-mile exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor near the village of Novosiolki, Belarus on January 11, 2009. After the evacuation of the human population, wildlife populations have exploded. Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters

One quarter century ago, a flotilla of trucks and buses evacuated the 330,000 human inhabitants from Chernobyl’s exclusion zone, a massive area almost twice the size of Luxemburg. Today, some biologists have a different name for that zone: Europe’s largest wildlife refuge.

The human story is well told. Centuries old villages vanished from maps, disappearing into the undergrowth. Less has been said about resurgence of wildlife caused by the withdrawal of the hand of man.

Wolves, wild boar, elk, moose, roe deer, foxes, lynx, beavers, badgers,  white-tailed eagles, nesting swans, cranes, black stork and great white egrets now abound, checked only by their natural predatorsRussians may make dark jokes, calling their national symbol, the two-headed eagle, the “Chernobyl chicken.”

A worker feeds European Bison introduced to a state ecology reserve established in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, near the village of Babchin, Belarus. Photo: Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters

But biologists working around Chernobyl say they have found few deformities. This is partly because the law of the forest dictates that predators kill animals with abnormalities. In addition, animals do not seem to suffer from the psychological stress endured by humans after a nuclear accident.


Indeed, with the disappearance of hunters, dogs, cats, pesticides and automobiles, animal and bird populations probably feel less stress than before. When I spent a day in the Chernobyl area earlier this spring, I was struck by the quiet, the sense of peaceful solitude.

Cattle and mice that endured the initial radiation blast suffered health setbacks. But, biologists say, subsequent generations bounced back normally. One radioecologist, Sergey Gaschak, told BBC recently of finding nests – and eggs — of starlings, pigeons, swallows and redstarts inside the “sarcophagus” – the containment shell built over the radioactive remains of the burnt reactor.

And authorities in post-independence Ukraine introduced into the exclusion zone two endangered species: European bison and Przewalski’s horse. Both populations are thriving.There is talk of sightings of brown bears, a species not seen in this corner of Central Europe for decades.

At the time of the accident, the radioactivity from Chernobyl blew north, contaminating large areas of what are now Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. Belarus already has turned much of its exclusion zone into an official nature reserve. Ukraine and Russia are studying similar proposals..

A deer stands in the state radiation ecology reserve in the 19-mile exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor near the village of Babchin. Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters

Russia has a precedent.

In September, 1957, an explosion took place at a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant near Chelyabinsk, about 1,400 kilometers east of Moscow. On the International Nuclear Event Scale, the disaster was ranked as a Level 6, making it the third most serious nuclear accident, after Chernobyl and Fukushima.

One week after the explosion, about 10,000 people were evacuated from an 800 square kilometer area, about one fifth the area of the Chernobyl exclusion zone. A pollution plume fell in a long, northeast track, now known as the East-Ural Radioactive Trace. Ten years after the accident, Soviet authorities justified closing the area by calling it the East-Ural Nature Reserve.

Closer to Japan, there is the Demilitarized Zone, a band of land 250 kilometers long and four kilometers wide that has kept the two Koreas apart since the Korean War armistice of 1953.

Running from seashore to seashore, the DMZ crosses mountains, plains, lakes and swamps. This geographic diversity, coupled with isolation from man for almost six decades has created what is probably the most biologically rich corner of the Korean peninsula today.

In the DMZ, biologists have identified 70 types of mammals and 320 kinds of birds, including the red-crowned crane and the white-naped crane, both staples of traditional Asian art. If land mines are cleared, the DMZ could be the best place in Korea to reintroduce large, endangered mammals – the Korean Tiger, Amur leopard and Asiatic black bear.

In 2005, I traveled from Seoul to the southern edge of the DMZ to interview Ted Turner, the founder of CNN. He had come to unveil his proposal to one day turn the DMZ into a peace park and nature reserve. While inter-Korean relations have not thawed since then, many people back the concept of conserving this green strip across the Korean peninsula.

Today, a question mark hangs over the empty Japanese coastal villages surrounding Fukushima. Some believe that human habitation may never resume.

One option may be a green belt surrounding the nuclear plant complex. By coincidence, the exclusion zone surrounding Fukushima went into effect on April 22, a day, marked in Japan and around the world, as Earth Day.

Selah Hennessy is a well-traveled California girl who previously worked in Dakar, Sierra Leone and Democratic Republic of Congo for VOA. While Ted is out on a cross-country trip, she'll be guest blogging about her own trip from New York through Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Michigan, Illinois, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and then all the way northeast back to New York.

5 responses to “Chernobyl Zone — Europe’s Largest Wildlife Refuge?”

  1. Pyotr says:

    At least wild life benefited from the disaster! It is some oinment in a swarm of flies. Perhaps it was not so bad as it was pictured after all?!… Never mind. ..just another dark joke from a Russian.

  2. English tips says:

    Definitely it was a tragic nuclear accident. I remember that in Brazil a tragic accident took place in Goiania killing several people and injured. It was in 1990.

  3. lala says:

    What is the result of breeding animals ( wheter hot blooded, cold blooder or insects) in a radioactive “milieu”
    I remeber hearing of using experimental radioactive sources to increase the genetic modifications of seed ( ghana in the sixties among others)
    what does it do to animals, from what is heard from Ukraine a number of genetic modifications, most of them adverse

  4. […] be no group specifically working to preserve the Chernobyl exclusion zone, but you can learn more here from Voice of America’s bureau chief in […]



James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.



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