Worse than radioactivity? Chernobyl was a haven for wild animals … so Russian troops arrived

A Ukrainian soldier stands guard next to the monument to the firefighters who died in the Chernobyl disaster, following the departure of Russian troops. April 26, 2022

A Ukrainian soldier stands guard next to the monument to the firefighters who died in the Chernobyl disaster, following the departure of Russian troops.  April 26, 2022

©SERGEI SUPINSKY / AFP

The effect of the war

In 1986, reactor number 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded and the world faced the worst nuclear disaster in its history. An exclusion zone is created around the plant and nature gradually takes back its rights before Russian troops invade the area after the invasion of Ukraine

Atlantico: In 1986, Ukraine made headlines as a socialist republic of the USSR. In 1986, one of the reactors at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded, causing a major ecological disaster. To protect stocks, an exclusion zone has been created around the old facility. In the years that followed, the fauna and flora continued to spread without humans until the invasion of the Russian army. To what extent could the intrusion of Vladimir Putin’s men have disrupted this new ecosystem?

German Orizaola: We still do not know the impact of Russian troops’ recent invasion of the Chernobyl exclusion zone, which lasted just over a month. The area, as well as large parts of Ukraine, is still difficult to access, both in terms of logistics and security. We were therefore unable to assess the impact of the war on the fauna of Chernobyl. Our Ukrainian colleagues from the Chernobyl Center and the Chernobyl Biosphere Reserve recently visited the region, but primarily to assess the extent of destruction of laboratories and field equipment, which was significant. I do not expect the Russian occupation to have a major impact on the fauna and flora of the area, as most of the area has remained unoccupied, and I hope that most of the wildlife has taken refuge in these areas. The biggest impact has been in the form of research and conservation activities, completely stopped by the war and heavily affected by the destruction of infrastructure, the looting of research equipment and the general instability in the area, which prevents the continuation of the many investigations and conservation activities developed in Chernobyl.

How was the wildlife situation in Chernobyl before the war started?

36 years after the accident, Chernobyl has become one of the largest nature reserves in Europe, stretching over 4,500 km2 between Ukraine and Belarus. This area was home to a rich diversity of fauna and flora, with over 400 vertebrates, including about 75 listed as endangered in Ukraine. It was possessed by many charismatic species, such as brown bear, wolf, lynx, bison, Przewalski’s horse, bull … The area was considered one of the best examples of re-wildness in the world, which inspired many naturalization activities.

Many researchers were present to pursue studies in this field, just like you. Will the human hand change their studies? Do they want the same value?

I hope that we will not see much change and that we will soon be able to return to the region and once again participate in research activities with our Ukrainian colleagues. Our studies will retain the same value in terms of ecology, evolution and rewilding, and in addition they will now have an added value: to contribute to the reconstruction of facilities and research activities in Ukraine, and to further promote collaboration with researchers and Ukrainian authorities. The cooperation between Ukrainian and international researchers in Chernobyl can be an excellent example of the kind of action that the international community can encourage to help Ukraine overcome the brutal effects of the current war.

Will the radiation in the region in the long run have a negative effect on the distribution of animals? Has human intervention changed the situation?

Radiation decays over time, so the longer the time passes, the lower the level of radioactive contamination in Chernobyl. More than thirty years after the accident, less than 10% of the radioactive substances released into the environment remain in the region. Most of the most dangerous isotopes (eg radioactive iodine) are long gone, and the vast majority of those present today (cesium, strontium) will be almost gone in less than 100 years. Experience from the last 36 years tells us that animal populations of many species are increasing in the region due to radioactive decay and the absence of humans. Przewalski’s horses are a good example: their numbers have increased more than five times since their first release, despite illegal hunting. Wolves in Chornobyl maintain the highest density in all of Europe. They are rightly one of the best examples of the wildlife situation in Chornobyl and the redevelopment of the area.

Following the withdrawal of Russian troops from the region and the return of the exclusion zone to Ukrainian control, I hope that the situation in the region will once again remain calm and safe for nature and people. I hope that we will return soon to confirm this with our Ukrainian colleagues.

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