A New Kind of Nature Reserve!

A Family of Elk. Credit: Valeriy Yurko. Source: http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2015-10/06/chernobyl-wildlife-thriving-nuclear-exclusion-zone

There’s no question that the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 was… well… a disaster! Due to a flawed reactor design and inadequately trained personnel, a huge explosion occurred and there were many fires, with at least 5% of the radioactive reactor core being released into the atmosphere and downwind. Both the explosion and the resulting radiation killed around 30 people within a few weeks of the accident, and the local wildlife in the area was all but destroyed at the time. People were evacuated and relocated, an effort still ongoing, and the area was left abandoned. But it seems, some three decades later, that wildlife is finding its way back.

It’s no secret that plant-life has been flourishing in the immediate vicinity of the explosion for years, as some drone footage filmed by Danny Cooke revealed in 2014. But a new study published in the journal “Current Biology” seems to indicate that some mammalian wildlife is starting to call the area home once again. While previous studies showed a large reduction in the wildlife population, this study not only shows that numbers have increased, but that some species are actually thriving in the now human-free 4200 km2 exclusion zone. Measurements were taken from both aerial surveys and by assessing the number/density of animal tracks in the area, and it shows that the populations of Elk, Roe Deer, Red Deer, and Wild Boar are similar to those of four uncontaminated nature reserves in the region, and the Wolf population is around seven times higher! This would suggest that there are abundant mammal communities in the area regardless of the potential effects of radiation.

The study determined this by proposing and testing three different hypotheses.

  1. Mammal abundances are negatively correlated with levels of radioactive contamination in the area.
  2. Density of large mammals are suppressed in the exclusion zone compared to four uncontaminated nature reserves in the area.
  3. Density of large mammals declined in the period between 1 and 10 years after the accident.

In all three cases, the hypothesis was rejected by the evidence the research group collected, making a special note that the huge increase in Wolf population was likely due to the large amounts of prey now available to them. The paper also reports that “this represents unique evidence of wildlife’s resilience in the face of chronic radiation stress”. but I feel this claim is not supported by their evidence, as they also point out that this data cannot separate possible positive effects of a human-free environment from the potential negative effects of radiation. While this would require more studies focussing on each factor to determine for sure, it seems that removing human activity from an area is much better for animal populations than radiation is a detriment. As Jim Smith, a professor of environmental science at the University of Portsmouth, told The Guardian, “What we do, our everyday inhabitation of an area – agriculture, forestry – they’ve damaged wildlife more than the world’s worst nuclear accident”, adding that “It doesn’t say that nuclear accidents aren’t bad, of course they are. But it illustrates that the things we do every day, the human population pressure, damages the environment. It’s kind of amazing isn’t it.”

Amazing it certainly is! I mean, it’s quite a kick in the teeth to learn that simply the presence of humans in an area can have more persistently damaging effects to the environment than chronic radiation exposure. But don’t get too depressed! As Timothy Mousseau, a professor of biological sciences at the University of South Carolina, has pointed out to the BBC, “This study only applies to large animals under hunting pressure, rather than the vast majority of animals – most birds, small mammals, and insects – that are not directly influenced by human habitation.” So maybe we aren’t all that bad. Still, it’s something to think about.

In any case, I think we can all agree that it’s nice to see that we essentially have a new form of nature reserve, albeit a radioactive one. But if and when future studies truly identify the scope of the negative impact we humans have on the environment, I think it might be time to re-think how we behave on this planet. Don’t you?

Sources not mentioned in text:

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