• Przewalski's horse, which inhabited the Chernobyl zone. After 20 years the population has grown, and now they gallop on radioactive territories. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Take away the humans, and wildlife returns in abundance.
Shane Cubis

17 Mar 2017 - 12:05 PM  UPDATED 20 Mar 2017 - 9:48 AM

From a global perspective, you’d have to admit that humanity hasn’t been the best thing to happen to planet Earth. We’re responsible for a laundry list of negative things that have befallen our fellow species, both flora and fauna, even if we haven’t managed to crack the actual globe in half yet. But before you sink into a species-wide bout of self-loathing, take a glimpse at what can happen when humans are taken out of the equation.

For decades, Chernobyl has been the poster child for structural incompetence and institutional dysfunction’s ability to wreak massive chaos and destruction. Over the three decades since this Soviet nuclear facility exploded with the force of 400 Hiroshima bombs, releasing nasty toxins and radioactive material into the atmosphere, some very interesting things have happened – and they don’t involve the locals mutating into some Lovecraftian monstrosity.

No, in the absence of humans, who evacuated the area when the USSR established a 30km-radius exclusion zone after the 1986 disaster, wild mammals have returned to the area in large numbers. Researchers have marvelled at the regeneration that has taken place, despite continued high levels of radiation. It isn’t just species such as moose, deer and beavers that have expanded in number, either. There’s also evidence of more exotic animals like lynxes and brown bears, and one of the most interesting population explosions is among the wolf community. There are seven times as many lupine hunters than in surrounding regions, probably because there’s less competition for prey without us there.

This doesn’t make the place a wildlife utopia, of course. Vole (a kind of rodent) specialist Olena Burdo explains, “Mushrooms concentrate radiation. Voles love mushrooms. When they eat contaminated mushrooms, they concentrate the radiation in their bodies. When wolves eat voles, they pick up the contamination.” But even then, radiation has less of a negative effect than we do – a fact underscored by the establishment of an anti-poaching security force to police the area for illegal hunting and fishing.

Something similar is happening with the plantlife, too – at least the trees that aren’t felled by industrious beavers. In the abandoned town of Pripyat, it looks like one of those videogame maps where the ancient ruins of a post-apocalyptic landscape have been choked by land-reclaiming foliage.

So what does this mean for the future of the planet? It seems to indicate – much like the DMZ between North and South Korea that’s become a sanctuary for endangered species – that if we retreat from a region, nature fills the gap. 


Find out about the international rescue plan to build a huge steel shelter which will entomb the radiation in Building Chernobyl’s Mega Tomb. Stream from SBS On Demand right here.

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