Ukraine – Long-term census data has revealed that Chernobyl, the place where a nuclear power plant exploited in 1986, became a nature reserve where elk, deer, and wolves live freely. The study was published in the journal Current Biology.

The world’s worst nuclear accident in history was reason enough to declare Chernobyl as a permanent no-go zone for people. However, scientists suggested that radiation contamination has not hindered wildlife from breeding and thriving.

“When humans are removed, nature flourishes – even in the wake of the world’s worst nuclear accident,” said Jim Smith, a specialist in earth and environmental sciences at Britain’s University of Portsmouth, according to Reuters. “It’s very likely that wildlife numbers at Chernobyl are now much higher than they were before the accident.”

A badger uses a fallen tree as a bridge over a stream. Chernobyl. Credit:

Earlier studies showed major radiation effects and pronounced reductions in wildlife populations around the 4,200 square kilometers (1,600 square miles) Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

Nonetheless, Smith and his team, including study’s lead author Tatiana Deryabina, conducted a research to see what happens in an area highly contaminated but uninhabited by humans. Based on long-term census data, researchers found a relative abundance of elk, roe deer, red deer and wild boar.

Tatiana Deryabina, a wildlife ecologist at Polessye State Radioecological Reserve in Belarus said in a press release that she has been “working, studying and taking photos of the wonderful wildlife in the Chernobyl area for over 20 years, and I am very pleased our work is reaching a global scientific audience”.

The population rates of these animals are similar to those in four designated, and uncontaminated nature reserves in the region. In fact, the number of wolves living in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is seven times greater than the rates in comparable nature reserves.

“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 pressures of human habitation,” said Jim Beasley of the University of Georgia in the United States, who co-led the work.

According to the results from another helicopter survey data, these animals have been living in that zone from 1 to 10 years after the accident.

“In purely environmental terms, if you take the bad things that happened to the human population out of the equation, as far as we can see at this stage, the accident hasn’t done serious environmental damage”, Smith told the Press Association.

According to researchers, the study may also help scientists understand the potential long-term impact on wildfire of other disasters, such as the 2011 meltdown of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Source: Current Biology