After almost three decades of radiation exposure at the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, unexpectedly huge wildlife populations are thriving. Why? Because the humans are gone.
In this month's issue of the journal Current Biology, a team of international researchers shares its findings that many animals, including elk, wild boars, wolves, and two kinds of deer, are abundant in the 1,621 square miles of devastation following the explosion of a nuclear power plant. The 1986 Chernobyl disaster displaced more than 300,000 human residents, caused 31 direct human deaths, and an estimated 40,000 cancer deaths.
The research team found "no negative effect on mammal abundance," 30 years after the accident, despite many devastating affects to animals during the time and immediate aftermath of the explosion. The paper notes that for the first six months after the disaster, extremely high dosages of radiation "significantly affected animal health and reproduction at Chernobyl." But as animal populations recovered, they came back even stronger, as the greatest threat to their existence – humans – had vacated their habitat.
"This doesn't mean radiation is good for wildlife, just that the effects of human habitation, including hunting, farming and forestry, are a lot worse," said Jim Smith, a professor of environmental science at the University of Portsmouth in the U.K. and the team's coordinator.
That's right: We are worse for forest animals than a nuclear explosion.
In fact, census data show that wolves in the Chernobyl area are seven times as plentiful as in nearby reserves.