In Chernobyl nuclear zone, animals thrive without humans

Wed Apr 6, 2016 8:13am EDT
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By Vasily Fedosenko

CHERNOBYL EXCLUSION ZONE, Belarus (Reuters) - What happens to the environment when humans disappear? Thirty years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, booming populations of wolf, elk and other wildlife in the vast contaminated zone in Belarus and Ukraine provide a clue.

On April 26, 1986, a botched test at the nuclear plant in Ukraine, then a Soviet republic, sent clouds of smouldering radioactive material across large swathes of Europe.

Over 100,000 people had to abandon the area permanently, leaving native animals the sole occupants of a cross-border "exclusion zone" roughly the size of Luxembourg.

In the Belarussian part of the zone, tumble-down villages marked with yellow and red radiation warning signs have become hunting grounds for predators such as wolves and hawks. Birds, including tawny owls and magpies, nest in the roofs and chimneys of abandoned buildings.

Images of the wildlife can be seen at

"People can never live there - it's impossible - not even for the next 24,000 years," Ukrainian Ecology Minister Hanna Vronska said of the zone, which encompasses 2,600 sq km (1,000 square miles) of forest, marsh and open countryside.

The long-term impact of the radiation on animal populations is a subject of intense debate because scientists have struggled to untangle the positive effects of human absence from the negative effects of living in a poisoned environment.

Despite the radiation, wolf numbers are over seven times higher in the Belarussian part of the zone compared with uncontaminated areas elsewhere, according to a study published in scientific journal Current Biology last October.   Continued...

A white-tailed eagle lands on a wolf's carcass in the 30 km (19 miles) exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, in the abandoned village of Dronki, Belarus, February 15, 2016.  REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko