Tracking Wildlife in Chernobyl: The Emotional Landscape of a Disaster Zone

By Amy McDermott | February 18, 2016 12:32 pm

Wild boar on the run near an abandoned village. (Credit: Valeriy Yurko)

(This post originally appeared in the online science magazine Hawkmoth. Follow @HawkmothMag to discover more of their work.) 

Nature is taking back Chernobyl.

Three decades after a flawed nuclear reactor spewed radioactive material over 200 towns and villages across the borders of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia, trees grow through abandoned houses, owls hoot from rafters, and boar nest in old barns.

A handful of scientists study this ecosystem firsthand. Last year, a collaboration of American, Belarusian, and English researchers published the first study finding that large mammals are likely doing better than they were before the accident. Populations rebounded and grew, even in the first years after the disaster. Today, numbers of elk, deer, and wild boar are comparable to those in regional reserves.

The effects of radiation on general animal communities are still somewhat unclear. Brown frogs and barn swallows showed evidence of genetic abnormalities in ecosystems close to the reactor, but in eight of Chernobyl’s lakes and streams, heavily irradiated areas did not have fewer species of fish or water bugs than less-contaminated sites. Research has indicated no significant pattern between radiation levels and aquatic species diversity.

That’s not to say that nuclear disasters are good for wildlife, scientists caution. But humans, it seems, were worse than radiation. For researchers working in the Exclusion Zone today, that can be an emotional irony.

“It’s an obvious point really— we’re not good for the environment,” said Jim Smith, an environmental physicist at the University of Portsmouth in the UK and coauthor of the recent study. “I think Chernobyl illustrates it— I can’t think in a more dramatic way.”

(Credit: Valeriy Yurko)

(Credit: Valeriy Yurko)

Nearly 350,000 people were evacuated from the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. When they left, animals were freed from the human pressures of hunting, forestry, and fishing. Although caused by disastrous means, the agricultural ecosystem rebounded, Smith explained.

Habitat loss and fragmentation were two big consequences of Chernobyl’s agricultural economy in the years before the accident, added James Beasley, a wildlife biologist at the University of Georgia and coauthor of the study. Farms cut into forest, giving the animals nowhere to go.

Now that the people are gone, wildlife has bounced back. Emotionally, that’s a hard landscape for scientists to navigate.

“The first years working in the reserve I felt compassion toward the people that were forced to leave their small homeland,” said lead author Tatyana Deryabina, a wildlife ecologist based at Polesie State Radioecological Reserve in Belarus. But “Over the years, observing the wildlife in this area abandoned by people, this feeling was replaced by another. I thought more about the animals.”

Deryabina has worked in Chernobyl for 14 years. When humans disappeared, so did the pressure they put on wildlife, she says. “I was even glad there are no people, and animals have a piece of land where they can feel like home.”

Beasley is also torn. “There’s a bit of an eerie sadness that overcomes you as you drive through the zone,” he said. Working there is “probably the most emotionally polarizing experience I’ve had as a scientist.”

During the field season, Beasley and a team of American and Belarusian researchers drive through Chernobyl on roads that have languished, empty, for nearly 30 years. They survey, trap, and collar large mammals and predators, like deer, moose, boar, lynx, and wolves, tracking the number and variety of mammals on the land. Radiation detectors the size of cigarette packs are clipped to their pockets.


A lynx near Chernobyl. (Credit: Valeriy Lukashevitch)

On the one hand, Beasley says, his work is exciting. It’s a very rare opportunity to work in Chernobyl, and as a wildlife biologist, “whether it be wild boar crossing a creek as we’re driving by or a herd of bison out in the field,” he sees signs of life everywhere. “It’s almost like being in a national park without people.”

But on the other hand, the zone is littered with abandoned agricultural villages — the vestiges of human tragedy, he says. In the houses, “sometimes there are pictures on the table, there’s maybe a baseball bat lying in a corner.” The landscape is a constant reminder of lives turned upside down.

For Smith, working in the zone has become normalized, but he still remembers the people left behind. Shortly after the accident, Smith visited a lake in Russia, and met a local fisherman living off the irradiated land.

“I said via translation ‘really you shouldn’t be eating this fish’,” Smith remembered. “And he said ‘well what do you expect me to eat?’”

The hardship of those years after the accident, Smith says, didn’t leave people with much choice. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, “radiation wasn’t their biggest problem.” Upheaval and instability marked that time.

Since then, Smith has waded into a variety of lakes and streams, including Lake Glubokoye, one of Chernobyl’s most contaminated, netting fish and small invertebrates to study the impact of radiation on their numbers and variety.


Buffalo stop for a sip of water. (Credit: Tatyana Deryabina)

On a typical day, he and scientific colleagues from Belarus or Ukraine wake up in a local hotel, and ride into the Exclusion Zone by minibus. Once they reach the day’s study site, they set nets or wade in, then count and identify the day’s catch and measure the animals’ radiation levels.

The atmosphere is usually “pretty informal and jokey,” Smith said. But there are reminders of the tragic past. Some Belarusian and Ukrainian collaborators remember the disaster firsthand.

“One guy told me he was doing fieldwork in the zone at the time of the accident, and only found out about it when he got back,” Smith said. “He’s relaxed because he thinks he’s had his dose.”

How does a person make sense of this? Chernobyl is human tragedy tangled up with environmental victory, both at their most extreme. There’s no absolute right or wrong here, no one way to feel. For Beasley it’s a nod to compromise.

“Ultimately we need to have some balance between what’s good for wildlife and what’s good for human society,” he said. “This is a good tangible example that I think speaks to that.”

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Chernobyl Wildlife, Top posts
MORE ABOUT: animals, pollution
  • Uncle Al

    Nice censorship you have here. The Earth’s only problem is people – too many, too useless, too needy, too reproductive.

    • reed1v

      But that is true. Population control is the most pressing issue that everyone avoids dealing with.

      • OWilson

        Oh, I wouldn’t say that.

        With 60,000.000 legal abortions since Roe Vs Wade, somebody is obviously “takin’ care of business” :)

        • Vysehrad

          Or contraceptives before it gets to that point.

          • OWilson

            Japan’s population is IMPLODING :)

          • Martin Marty マ (m)

            It’s almost like humans are the same as the black death. Came seemingly from nowhere killed off everything in its path and then started to disappear… 😀

          • OWilson

            The science of population rise and fall among species was once a serious well studied and understood subject, before the current politicisation.

            A specie’s range, food source, and predators are involved in a delicate dance that remains in surprising balance.

            Like the weather, populations have extreme parameters at both ends of the spectrum, which define the “average”. There are distinct 7 year cycles, and many others, in the world of flaura and fauna.

            The headlines these days, emphasize any population reduction, and completely ignore later rebounding, and since there is always population reduction at some point in the food change, it leaves the impression (intended) that we are killing off everything on earth.

            They are now talking about “one of the greatest Extinction Events” in earth’s history.

            And all in the 75 years or so that we happen to be alive :)


          • van win

            Yes, not only are we ruining the planet with filth, pollution, concrete etc but we have already started filling space with our rubbish. Then it will be the moon, Mars and wherever else we manage to spread to.

          • OWilson

            I trust you take your own bodily fecal wastes and bury them in a place where they may eventually fertilize a tree?

            Or, do you just do what all you limousine liberals do, just flush it down the toilet, like the rest of the poor “unenlightened”. :)

          • van win

            How old are you Wilson? you sound as if you dont even understand the various ways some of us tackle waste. My guess is that your are an ageing teenager.

          • Derek Edwards

            I know. Space will be completely filled soon. What then? /s

          • van win

            Hopefully human beings will die out, destroyed by their own waste and overcrowding. I have given up on humans and their aggression.

          • van win

            Wherever you get crowding, you will get mass deaths, like chicken sheds. This is a fact of nature. and Probably a good idea.

        • JAFischer

          More children are born every day than have been aborted. Nice try.

          • OWilson

            What’s 60 million more or less, eh?

            Last century, between them, they killed something like 100 million.

            I know it’s not enough, but if they could only get a decent Supreme Court Justice, next time out, they would be able to kill at least twice as any.

            I take it you were one of the few survivors?

          • JAFischer

            I’d prefer that abortions never happen, but I know that there’s no way to end them without confining everybody (male and female) inside a completely automated building where we each live in separate rooms and are fed and cared for by machines. (Oh, and all children are conceived through artificial insemination and then gestated in artificial wombs.)

            But you want women to have children no matter what, even if the birth will kill or cripple them, even if the children will be stillborn, and probably even if the ‘woman’ is actually 12 years old. Because women should face ‘consequences’ for sex (even rape), right? Then you can take away all forms of assistance and bitch about all these underemployed women with the children they can’t care for — or bitch about all these kids cycling through foster care until they’re kicked out at age 18.

          • OWilson

            Didn’t mean to set you off in a rant :)

            I don’t “want” anything from women. Besides, I’m a man. They don’t need my permission from me to kill their babies :)

            I was just commenting on another posters population control statement.

          • van win

            They are not babies, they are a bunch of cells maybe 16 of them. Can you communicate with 16 cells?

    • van win

      And too aggressive and too destructive. Thanks Al.

    • van win

      Good on you Al, glad to see I am not alone. All that you say, and add too aggressive. And too selfish,. And too greedy.

  • Bruce Williams

    This is the best example of humans interfering with mother nature. Not only did we disrupt a human habitat, we also disrupted everything else’s. Animals do not need us to thrive, but we need them. Animals are so resilient and prove continually that they are highly adaptive. When I say animals, I mean non homo-sapiens. I think that we should leave this place alone and let it be occupied by the only thing thriving there. Let it stand as an example of what we can cause and what mother nature can overcome.

  • OWilson

    Animals don’t go to school or read newspapers :)

  • Nick697

    Gee wiz. Not a single mention of global warming. Miraculous.

  • Van Snyder

    How many square kilometers of animal habitat would be used up to provide the same power output as the nuclear reactors using solar photovoltaic cells?

  • bwana

    “But humans, it seems, were worse than radiation.” I think any animal population would agree with this. In fact, a lot of humans feel the same way towards their fellow man…

  • Dan Lipford

    We ARE part of the environment, just like beavers, wildfires, and locusts are part of the environment, and our effects on it favor some species over others, just as do the effects caused by beavers, wildfires…

    Understanding man as part of nature and not as an outside force that affects nature might result in greater illumination and clearer thought.

  • charlie victor

    Nothing about radiation count levels!

  • van win

    Or, do you just do what all you limousine liberals do, just flush it
    down the toilet, like the rest of the poor “unenlightened”. :)

    No,O Wilson, I do not contribute to the national waste, it is a septic tank which is maintained by good bacteria. By the time they finish with it it is totally harmless, and in fact good for the ground. So think twice before you accuse me.


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