Lack of human activity allows wildlife to thrive near Chernobyl disaster site

Three decades after the biggest nuclear disaster of all time, a new study has found that wildlife surrounding Chernobyl is not only alive—it’s thriving.

The study, which was recently published in Current Biology, found that there’s currently an abundance of elk, roe and red deer, and wild boars within the “exclusion zone,” a 4,200-square-kilometre area that was evacuated following the 1986 accident. And not only the population in the excavated area around the same as four nearby nature reserves, it’s likely higher than before the accident.

According to the study’s authors, the lack of human-related activities is why the wildlife has returned to the area over the past decade.

This theory suggests that the presence of humans can be more detrimental to wildlife than radiation.

“This doesn’t mean radiation is good for wildlife, just that the effects of human habitation, including farming and forestry, are a lot worse,” said John Smith, one of the study’s authors, in a statement.

The study, which examined animal tracks and aerial census data from 1987 to 1997, tested out three main hypotheses about the effect of radiation on the wildlife population.

The three key beliefs were that wildlife abundances are negatively affected by radiation exposure, that the population levels would be lower compared to four nearby uncontaminated areas, and finally, that the density of large mammals, such as wild boars, elk and roe deer, declined in the first 10 years following the accident.

None of the three hypotheses were supported by the study.

“Extremely high dose rates during the first six months after the accident significantly affected animal health and reproduction at Chernobyl,” the study states. “However, any potential long-term radiation damage to populations is not apparent from our trend analysis of large mammal abundances.”

Rather, the study states, that humans cause the most persistent and ever-growing strains. However, this doesn’t mean that displacing humans through nuclear catastrophes is an ideal approach to wildlife protection.

“These unique data showing a wide range of animals thriving within miles of a major nuclear accident illustrate the resilience of wildlife populations when freed from the pressure of human habitation,” said Jim Beasley, a co-author of the study.

Similarity, in Fukushima, Japan, the site of a nuclear disaster in 2011, wildlife has also begun returning to the area.