Humans may have abandoned Chernobyl years ago, but animals are thriving at the infamous nuclear meltdown site, according to new study.
The 1986 disaster that occurred in what is now Ukraine has rendered the 1600 square miles around Chernobyl unihabitatable for human life for thousands of years. But as people have moved out, animals have made the area home.
Researchers, led by Professor Jim Smith of the University of Portsmouth, say the number of animals living near the Chernobyl nuclear reactor have rebounded to levels even higher than those seen before the accident.
The study, published Monday in the journal Current Biology, analyzed aerial surveys and footprints and found plenty of large mammals like roe deer, elk, wild boar, and wolves residing in the exclusion zone.
The number of wolves in the area was particulary high, up to seven times the amount in nature reserves of comparable size, which Smith attributes to a lack of hunting in the exclusion zone, as well as the abundance of prey animals.
The researchers said the study doesn’t mean that animals are immune from radiation damage, and caution that the findings only examine the effects on overall wildlife populations, not individual animals.
Timothy Mousseau, a professor of biological sciences at the University of South Carolina, also questioned the study, claiming researchers didn’t provide an adequate control group or measure the radiation signature of animals. Mousseau thinks the claim that the Chernobyl zone is “teeming with wildlife” is “overly optimistic,” and says more research is needed determine the long-term effects of the disaster on the environment.
However, the study does suggest that humans may have been an ultimately bigger threat to animal’s survival than a nuclear meltdown. With humans out of the picture, Chernobyl, long considered an apocalyptic wasteland, may in fact be an accidental wildlife sanctuary.
“When humans are removed, nature flourishes,” Smith said. “Even in the aftermath of the world’s worst nuclear accident.”