The Accidental Rewilding. From Nuclear to Nature: where the wild things are.

By Philippa Hadlow

Reading time: 14 minutes

Purpose-built in 1977, Pripyat is now a ghost town and has been for over three decades. In the wake of nuclear disaster, the city was rapidly abandoned by its 50,000 people. Children's toys were left mid-play, washing on lines was left flapping, half-drunk coffee cups were upturned in haste.

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Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870-1924) was Bolshevik Party leader of two Russian Revolutions; founder of the Russian Communist Party; headed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR); and was architect of the Soviet State. His Marxist-Leninist policies governed a country through difficult times – some of his own creation. But he also operated with the genuine belief that he was inspiring hope for the people via what he considered: "The greater good."

Lenin’s legacy lives on in all history, including as official namesake for Chernobyl; a.k.a. the Vladimir Ilyich Lenin Nuclear Power Plant.

By Philippa Hadlow

Reading time: 14 minutes

Purpose-built in 1977, Pripyat is now a ghost town and has been for over three decades. In the wake of nuclear disaster, the city was rapidly abandoned by its 50,000 people. Children’s toys were left mid-play, washing on lines was left flapping, half-drunk coffee cups were upturned in haste.

 

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870-1924) was Bolshevik Party leader of two Russian Revolutions; founder of the Russian Communist Party; headed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR); and was architect of the Soviet State. His Marxist-Leninist policies governed a country through difficult times – some of his own creation. But he also operated with the genuine belief that he was inspiring hope for the people via what he considered: “The greater good.”

Lenin’s legacy lives on in all history, including as official namesake for Chernobyl; a.k.a. the Vladimir Ilyich Lenin Nuclear Power Plant.

A test for safety becomes life-testing.

The central government in Moscow knew in 1983 that the power plant was “one of the most dangerous nuclear powerplants in the USSR” (List of nuclear power accidents by country, 2021).

Chernobyl disaster memorial 20 years after the event.

Previous accidents in reactor number 1 in 1982 and in reactors 3 and 4 in 1984 had already been recorded. Then, on 26 April 1986, the 4th nuclear reactor of the Vladimir Ilyich Lenin Nuclear Power Plant (Chernobyl) blew up.

The economic costs of containment, decontamination, and immediate loss of agricultural and forest productivity in the area virtually bankrupted the nation. The social costs of resettlement into nearby Paryshiv and Kyiv and of building new city Slavutych for evacuees are ongoing. Welfare programmes for those people affected are open-ended. In April 2006, general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1985–1991) and president of the Soviet Union (1990–1991) Mikhail Gorbachev wrote:

“The nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl 20 years ago this month, even more than my launch of perestroika, was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union.”

But what about the local flora and fauna? Straight after the disaster, the forecast for many wildlife species wasn’t looking good. Numbers of bumblebees, butterflies, spiders, and grasshoppers reduced. Some mammals stopped reproducing or birthed offspring with deformities and, four square kilometres of pine forest turned reddish-brown (earning the name the Red Forest).

The ‘greater good’ that Lenin could not have predicted.

Nature is an incredible thing. By the next growing season in 1987, the population viability of plants and animals had substantially recovered. Radiation decay happened rapidly, and levels dropped significantly. Now, in the 4200 km2contamination risk exclusion zone (straddling Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia) created to keep people out, wildlife is in there, thriving. This so-called Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (CEZ) now represents the third-largest nature reserve in mainland Europe and has become an iconic – if accidental – experiment in rewilding.

How do we know? Well, over the past ten or 15 years, scientists, biologists, and international teams of university researchers have been heading out there to check things over. The teams tested hypotheses concerning the resilience of wildlife to the world’s worst nuclear accident by making comparisons of animal populations between the radiation zone and uncontaminated zones.

Wild fox beside the Pripyat sign

They were amazed by their findings. Animals have boomed in the absence of human interference. A lack of industrialisation and agricultural development has seen species not spotted for decades, such as the lynx and eagle owl, begin to return. There are tantalising footprints of a bear – an animal that has not trodden this part of Ukraine for centuries. The entire area is teeming with elk, roe deer, moose, bison, red deer, red fox, wild boar, otter, black stork, racoon dog, two species of hare, Eurasian boar, Eurasian badger, beaver, and grey wolf. The wolf population alone increased to numbers more than seven times greater than in the four nearby uncontaminated nature reserves.

Jim Beasley of the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory has investigated animal life in the CEZ with grant support from the National Geographic Society Committee for Research and Exploration.

In a new study released by his team, Beasley says that the population of large mammals on the Belarus side of Chernobyl has increased considerably since the disaster. He was pleasantly surprised by the number of animals he saw there even in a fairly short five-week survey. “It’s just incredible. You can’t go anywhere without seeing animals,” he says.

Hawks and eagles have also been spotted and dozens of swans are peacefully paddling in the radioactive cooling pond, while large, healthy catfish cruise below the surface.

“I would argue that for many of those species [the effects of radiation], even if they’re there, probably aren’t enough to suppress populations to the point where they can’t sustain themselves,” says Beasley. “These data support the results of other recent studies and contrast with research suggesting that wildlife populations are depleted within the CEZ.”

“I would argue that for many of those species [the effects of radiation], even if they’re there, probably aren’t enough to suppress populations to the point where they can’t sustain themselves,” says Beasley. “These data support the results of other recent studies and contrast with research suggesting that wildlife populations are depleted within the CEZ. Humans have been removed from the system, and this greatly overshadows any of those potential radiation effects,” he says.

In more encouraging news, the highly endangered Przewalski’s horse, discovered in the Asia expansive Gobi Desert and named after Russian scientist Nikolai Przewalski, was reintroduced by scientists to areas of Mongolia, China, and Russia as part of preservation efforts.

In 1998, thirty of the horses were released into the Chernobyl zone, replacing an extinct horse native to the region: the Tarpan. With few humans living in the area, the Przewalski horse population has had the opportunity to increase steadily. It now numbers around 150 in parts of the exclusion zone, with around another 60 over the border in Belarus.

Denys Vyshnevsky is head of the scientific department of the Chernobyl nature reserve created in the area five years ago. Following the success of Przewalski’s horse in Chernobyl, there is discussion over introducing other endangered species to Ukraine’s CEZ.

Vyshnevsky sees one potential candidate in the European bison. This massive creature already roams over the border in Belarus, and discussions to re-habitat the species in Chernobyl are underway with the World Wildlife Fund, a global environmental NGO. “We’ll be able to recreate the landscape that was here before humans began intensely exploiting the region,” he said.

It seems too good to be true – but the evidence is there to be seen – and seen it is – by the 100,000-odd tourists that visit Chernobyl each year. These visitors are gobsmacked by the verdant spaces and fascinated by a site that looks less like a disaster zone and more like a nature reserve.

In March 2019, most of the research groups working with Chernobyl wildlife met in Portsmouth, England. About 30 of these researchers, from the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Belgium, Norway, Spain, and Ukraine, presented the latest results of their observations. Their studies included work on big mammals, nesting birds, amphibians, fish, bumblebees, earthworms, bacteria, and leaf litter decomposition.

The conclusions were: firstly, wildlife could be much more resistant to radiation than previously thought, and secondly, some organisms could be starting to show adaptive responses allowing them to cope with radiation and live inside the exclusion zone without harm. Another study along these same lines was published in the British Ecological Society’s journal, Functional Ecology, and presented evidence that some wild animals, particularly birds, show adaptation to ionising radiation. Interestingly, this ability depends on the colour of their plumage as certain colour pigments interfere with the bird’s ability to resist radiation’s effects.

The third and main outcome of their research pointed to the absence of humans inside the exclusion zone which could be favouring many species – big mammals in particular (Current Biology, 2015).

“It’s very likely that wildlife numbers at Chernobyl are much higher than they were before the accident,” says Jim Smith, a Professor of Environmental Science at the University of Portsmouth.

Chernobyl, its origins, identity, and the specially-built city of Pripyat are familiar pieces of history to us all, but, what came before these (now partially) abandoned cities?

It’s hard to imagine but picture the area that would become Pripyat as a sleepy, rural enclave (one of many in the area), reliant on agriculture and trade to survive. Peaceful times were the norm, and in the 13th century, it was a crown village of Lithuania’s Grand Duchy. In 1569, the province housing modern-day Chernobyl became part of the Kingdom of Poland. When Russia, Prussia, and Austria dissolved Poland through a series of partitions, Chernobyl became a part of the Russian Empire in 1793.

In the last half of the 18th century, Chernobyl became a centre for Hasidic Judaism. However, the Jewish population suffered greatly in the early 1900s when many Jews were killed by the Black Hundreds, an ultra-nationalist movement in Russia.

In the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-1920, the city was taken first by the Polish Army and then by the Red Army. Chernobyl was incorporated into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1921.

Before 1970, the locality soon to be Pripyat was inhabited by around 14,000 residents and life was fairly typical of any other village. The 775 kilometre-long Pripyat River was a valuable resource, its origins beginning on the Volyn Hill, between the Budnik and Horn Smolars villages of Lyubomlsky District in Ukraine. Flowing 204 km downstream, it crosses the border of Belarus, where it travels through Polesia, Europe’s largest wilderness.

Herein lie the vast sandy wetlands known as the Pinsk marshes, a dense network of swamps, bogs, and rivers, surrounded by open fields and rivulets trickling through a primordial forest basin. You can appreciate the beauty and the lush generosity of the abundant habitat enabling wildlife to abound at that time.

Pripyat was built to house the workers of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in 1977, and by 1986, it was a thriving atomograd (atomic city), regarded as a people’s paradise. Kids went to kindergartens and schools, there were cinemas, a respectable selection of shops and cafés; Christmas was celebrated, swimming was enjoyed in Pripyat River and sailing pursued on artificially-created Lake Yanovsky Zaton.

In a split-second mistake on April 26 1986, all was abandoned, the city evacuated, and industry halted.

 

But from this mayhem has transpired a living, breathing haven for wildlife, an unintentional nature reserve and an involuntary park. What came before, has been welcomed in again.

Chernobyl has provided us with an extreme lesson that for wildlife and ecosystems to flourish, we must free up the space they need and then leave them be. In Pripyat, as in George Orwell’s book Animal Farm, the animals have truly triumphed and now lead the way towards a better society for their species.

 

Sources: 1. Wikipedia 2. Where the wild things are, The Ecological Society of America. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment: Vol 14 3. Chronic exposure to low-dose radiation at Chernobyl favors adaptation to oxidative stress in birds, British Ecological Society Scholarly Articles; Functional Ecology, 2014, 2016 4. Current Biology, Volume 25, Issue 19

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