Written by / TreeHugger

In the 30+ years since the disaster zone was evacuated, rare and endangered animals are flourishing.

In 1986, the stuff of disaster movies and dystopian nightmares came to life with the fire and explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in northern Ukraine.

The disaster released 400 times more radioactive material than was released by the bombing of Hiroshima, making large swaths of surrounding areas unsafe for human habitation. Today, the inadvertently poetic “Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Zone of Alienation,” also known as the Exclusion Zone, covers 1,000 square miles (2,600 square kilometers) in Ukraine and 800 square miles (2,100 square kilometers) in Belarus.

Prior to the accident, the region was the home to some 120,000 people living in the cities of of Chernobyl and Pripyat. Now with just a few handfuls of human holdouts, the ghost towns and outskirts are enjoying the most ironic of comebacks – wildlife is flourishing in the absence of mankind.

We have covered this before, first when researchers found an abundant mammal community, regardless of the radiation. They found a rare Przewalski’s horse and European lynx, which were previously gone from the region but have now returned. They also found a European brown bear in the exclusion zone. European brown bears have not been seen in that region for more than a century.

We wrote about it again when other research found that the ghost towns had become wonderlands for gray wolves (Canis lupus), with population densities in the Exclusion Zone exceeding those in uncontaminated reserves in the region.

And now, the flourishing of nature has become so pronounced that Belarus has started offering wildlife tours.

The Belarus part of the zone is called the Palieski state radioecological reserve, and as a story in The Guardian reports, “the reserve claims to be Europe’s largest experiment in rewilding, and the unlikely beneficiaries of nuclear disaster have been the wolves, bison and bears that now roam the depopulated landscape, and the 231 (of the country’s 334) bird species that can also be found here.”

Leading the tours, which began in December of last year, is eco-tour company APB-Birdlife Belarus, which calls Chernobyl an “accidental wildlife sanctuary.” From their site:

“The accident at Chernobyl nuclear power plant resulted in complete abandonment of a huge territory in Belarus as well as land on the Ukrainian side, creating the largest ever experiment as to what nature does when people leave. 30 years later the area is the nearest that Europe has to a wilderness and gives key lessons on how wildlife doesn’t need us! The zone is a classic example of an involuntary park. Its beauty cannot be overstated.”

Guardian writer Tom Allan went on one of these tours, and talks about how the usual animals that commingle with humans – like sparrows and rooks – have been given way to the more wild things, like eagles, lynx, and wolves.

For humans visiting the area, the radiation levels are said to be less than one would be exposed to on a transatlantic flight. But how are the animals who live their lives there managing it?

Allan notes that some research has found signs of fallout-related disease and mutation, while other studies, like the ones cited above, and anecdotal evidence suggest large populations of mammals in the zone.

Allan writes, “We don’t yet have the full picture, according to Viktar Fenchuk, project manager for the Wilderness Conservation Program in Belarus, and one of the country’s most senior conservationists. The reserve ‘could be an ecological “trap”, where animals move in […] and then develop health problems,’ he tells me. ‘But the evidence so far is that on a population level, the effect of radiation is not visible.’”

Only time will tell the fate of the zone’s more recent inhabitants, but in the meantime, it certainly provides some sobering food for thought.

Allan notes that nearly 350,000 people in total were evacuated from the zone. And while the number of deaths associated with the disaster is contested and likely ongoing – the accident was obviously catastrophic.

But that wildlife is thriving is poignant. And especially in light of the huge (largely ignored) UN reportfinding that mankind’s voracious habits are leading to an imminent collapse of nature. The authors say that one million animal and plant species are now facing extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history – and this doesn’t end well for our species, either.

But in one disaster-struck region, at least, wildlife is having a heyday. What may be a Zone of Alienation for humans has become an ironic haven for animals. And it begs the question: What if in the end, our dystopian nightmare becomes a dream come true for the rest of nature?