Wild horses in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Credit: Michael Kötter


By April Wendling


In an abandoned village in northern Ukraine, not far from the town of Pripyat, Mother Nature has taken back what was once hers. At the entrance, like many other empty villages in the area, a stone is painted with the town name and the number of people who once called it home. Without their owners, buildings have fallen into disrepair, ravaged by wildfires and snowstorms. Aging fruit trees bend under their own weight, collapsing onto rooftops. These settlements remain on maps, but are marked as нежил — “uninhabited.”

These villages aren’t quite uninhabited, however. Badgers, boars, and even bears harvest the orchards, looking for a hearty meal. Wild horses feast on the abundant grasses and brush. Even wolves are occasionally spotted looming between the trees. Without any people around to disturb the peace, this place seems like a perfect sanctuary for wildlife.

But this place is no sanctuary by design: It’s the notorious Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.


The Soviet Breadbasket

Long before nuclear disaster struck Chernobyl three decades ago, the area that would become the Exclusion Zone was home to playful wolf packs, hard-working beavers and their carefully constructed dams, and wild horses, to name only a few. But even before the fatal spring of 1986, most of these wild animals had already been killed or driven out by human activity. Wolves, in particular, were hunted ruthlessly in the early decades of the 20th century. Everywhere they roamed, they found themselves staring down the barrel of a gun. Reproductive females were targeted, wreaking havoc on the population’s age structure and gene pool.

At the border of the Exclusion Zone. Photo Credit: Flickr

And yet, hunting wasn’t even the biggest threat to wildlife. Rather, an all-out agricultural assault on the landscape in the late 1920s and early ’30s demolished much of the area’s biodiversity. In a massive national effort, complete with obligatory heroic propaganda featuring images of bountiful harvests adorned with captions like “Day of Harvest and Collectivization,” the Pripyat marshes were drained and deforested. Thousands of miles of canals were built, and tens of thousands of people arrived to work on the new collective farms. 

This so-called land improvement had a single goal in mind: to turn the region into the Soviet Union’s breadbasket. Even today, the land just outside the Exclusion Zone looks the same as it did 90 years ago — wheat fields and drainage canals as far as the eye can see.


Coping with the Fallout

Sixty years after this agricultural leap forward, the Chernobyl ecosystem was devastated again in the accident that has become a global byword for the dangers of nuclear energy. Early in the morning on April 26, 1986, as part of a safety test meant to simulate an outage, engineers cut power to components of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant’s No. 4 reactor, reducing cool water flow. Due to breaches in protocol while conducting this test, reactivity within the core escalated, causing pressure to build inside as water turned to steam. The operators attempted to halt the reaction by inserting control rods into the reactor, but due to a design flaw in Soviet-era reactors, reactivity spiked.  An explosion of steam exposed the reactor’s core, and the air that rushed in stoked a fire that raged for 10 days. Plumes of radioactive fallout were carried by wind and rain westward across Europe. The total amount of radiation released equaled that of 400 Hiroshima bombs.

Pripyat citizens evacuating in the days after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The next day, Soviet authorities ordered an evacuation of the 49,000 people within a 10-kilometer radius of the Chernobyl power plant. About a week later, the decision was made to expand the Exclusion Zone radius from 10 kilometers to 30 kilometers, and a further 67,000 people were uprooted.

When people living in the Zone were displaced, they were initially told they could return home in a few days. With this expectation, many left their possessions behind. Valuables were stolen by thieves over the years, but old stuffed animals can still be found in children’s rooms. Pairs of shoes still await their owners’ return on front doormats. The estimate of when the Zone would be safe again changed from several days to thousands of years as realization of the situation’s severity dawned on the world at large.

As people fled, other life in the Zone choked on radiation. Directly downwind of the reactor, a large pine forest changed color almost overnight from verdant olive green to rusty umber. Killed by acute radiation, it became known as the Red Forest. Populations of invertebrates declined, initially killed by acute radiation, and later devastated by toxic fallout that settled into the soil where they lay their eggs.

In the following months, Soviet soldiers, called liquidators, were brought in to clean up the contaminated landscape around the reactor. This job was originally delegated to remotely operated machinery to avoid unnecessary radiation exposure. But the intense radiation caused the machinery to break down rapidly, prompting Soviet leaders to send in soldiers who would not “break down” from radiation-related illness until months or years after they’d finished their work.

In areas near the power plant, abandoned machinery is entangled with the landscape — it’s unsafe to remove such contaminated equipment from the Exclusion Zone. This is its final resting place. As for the liquidators, they returned home, but life for them was never the same.

In her book, Voices from Chernobyl, Belarusian investigative journalist Svetlana Alexievich shared the stories of countless people whose lives were forever changed by the 1986 disaster. As one liquidator recounts, “I got home, I’d go dancing. I’d meet a girl I liked and say, ‘Let’s get to know each other.’ She’d say, ‘What for? You’re a Chernobylite now. I’d be scared to have your kids.’”

Others felt more than just the social stigma of radiation. Valentina Timofeevna Panasevich, the wife of a liquidator, describes what became of her husband and his crew: “The first one died after three years. We thought: Well, a coincidence. Fate. But then the second died and the third and the fourth. Then the others started waiting their turn. That’s how they lived. My husband died last.”


Nature Strikes Back

Once the liquidators had finished their jobs, all that was left in the Zone were the skeletons of old machines and ghostly memories of happier times. But, gradually, like dandelions pushing through the cracks of a suburban sidewalk, the flora and fauna of Chernobyl have reclaimed the land that was once theirs.

In his article, “Animals Rule Chernobyl Three Decades After Nuclear Disaster” in National Geographic, John Wendle details an expedition through the Exclusion Zone with Maryna Shkvyria, a wolf expert and Lead Researcher at the Shmalgauzen Institute of Zoology.

As they approach an abandoned village in the Zone, Shkvyria scans the landscape, looking for the tracks of large carnivores. In the loose sand, she finds the imprint left by a wandering wolf’s toes.

Shkvyria has been studying wildlife in the Zone since 2002. In that time, she’s developed unconventional yet effective methods for locating wolf packs.

“We came down here late last spring and howled, and the young wolf pups howled back from the top of that hill,” she tells Wendle.

While the Exclusion Zone may seem empty and lifeless, the wolf tracks and feces Shkvyria finds littered about suggest otherwise. The question is, are these wolves really thriving in the Zone, or do wolves from elsewhere come to the Zone and die there?

In another more recent interview, with the BBC’s Victoria Gill, Shkvyria noted, “After 15 years of studying them, we have a lot of information about their behavior, and the Chernobyl wolf is one of the most natural wolves in Ukraine.”

By “natural,” she means that the wolves eat very little human food.

“Usually, wolves are around settlements,” she explains. “They can eat livestock, crops and waste food — even pets.”

In the Exclusion Zone, however, the wolves hunt for wild prey. The wolves of Chernobyl are known to feast on deer and fish, while camera traps have captured their more secret, omnivorous habits, such as eating fruit from abandoned orchards.

“Natural” doesn’t mean safe, however. In the Exclusion Zone, radiation has settled into the ground on which mushrooms grow. Voles eat the contaminated mushrooms, and the radiation becomes concentrated in their bodies. Then a larger predator like a wolf will come along and eat the voles. This is where the radiation ends up — at the top of the food chain. If radiation is affecting the wildlife, the wolves would be the first to let us know.

Carnivore researcher Maryna Shkvyria. Photo Credit: National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine

As reported in her paper on Chernobyl wildlife from 2012, Shkvyria has found that there are at least six wolf packs, composed of 30 to 40 individuals, living in the Zone. These wolves are not migrants from outside the Zone, but rather individuals born and raised within it, indicating that this contaminated area is not, contrary to popular belief, a population sink — at least as far as wolves go.

During her studies of Chernobyl carnivores, Shkvyria has also found numerous toppled trees in the Zone — the handiwork of beavers. In the absence of humans, they’ve reappeared on the stretch of the Pripyat River that lies within the Zone. Thousands of them have been hard at work, year after year, damming up man-made canals and restoring the marshes. With the landscape’s return to its ancient marshy state, amphibians, fish, shellfish, insects, otters, moose, and waterfowl have returned as well. The Pripyat marshes were once so vast they stopped the army of Genghis Khan. Although Soviet-era agriculture cleared them out, the swamps are now back, thanks to the largest, busiest rodent in Europe, and a nuclear reactor.

And it’s not just wolves and beavers that are flourishing. Wild horses have returned to the Zone, though not in the way you’d expect. The last species of wild horse left on Earth is the endangered Przewalski, which have only survived in captivity. In 1998, however, a herd of 30 Przewalski was released in the Zone, in hopes that they would graze overgrown areas and reduce wildfire risk. About 60 of these wild horses are now dispersed throughout the Zone, and it’s thought that their population could be upwards of 200 if not for Ukrainian poachers.

These horses are native to the wide-open plains of Mongolia, so it seemed unlikely that they’d fare well in a forest habitat dotted with abandoned buildings. “But they’re really using the forests,” Shkvyria says. “We even put camera traps in old barns and buildings and they’re using them to (shelter) from mosquitoes and heat.”

Shkvyria’s studies also indicate that lynx populations in the Zone are rebounding, and she’s even confirmed the visitation of bears to the Exclusion Zone.

Mike Wood, an Environmental Scientist and Radioecologist at the University of Salford, is also studying the resurgence of wildlife in the Zone. Like Shkvyria and many other researchers seeking to better understand the Exclusion Zone’s fauna, he’s finding that despite radioactive contamination, wildlife is thriving in the absence of humans.

“We’re not saying that radiation is not as dangerous as we thought. Rather, it is possible that in the absence of humans, the stress of radioactive contamination is a manageable one for wildlife populations,” Wood said in an interview with The Telegraph‘s Roland Oliphant.

In other words, it’s easier for wildlife to cope with living in the shadow of a nuclear disaster than living alongside humans. Jot that down as another sobering lesson of the Anthropocene.


Breaking Down the Zone’s Borders

Yes, the animals of Chernobyl are back, but there’s an unsettling epilogue to this wildlife redemption story. The Zone’s ecosystem now faces a new yet historically familiar threat: the re-establishment of another species — Homo sapiens.

Radiation is not uniform throughout the Zone. Just as there are hotspots of radiation in places like the Red Forest and near the reactor itself, there are also cool spots, especially around the Zone’s edges. As the wind carried radiation across the land after the 1986 explosion, some places were spared. Some of these, like the town of Narodychi in the Ukrainian part of the Zone, are being slowly reclaimed for human habitation.

The world without us … abandoned buildings and parks in the Exclusion Zone are now overgrown by trees. Photo Credit: Flickr

In February 2019, scientists, community members, medical experts, and officials who manage the Zone gathered in a school in Narodychi to discuss redrawing the Exclusion Zone’s boundaries. Three decades of research have concluded that much of the outer Zone is safe for food growth, land development, and permanent residency. Most of those at the meeting agreed: It’s time to redraw the map.

Outside, a chorus of excited chatter echoes around the school during recess time. Kids are playing on swing sets and seesaws in the sunshine. A picket fence painted in bright rainbow colors surrounds the playground — it sticks out like a sore thumb against the blocky gray buildings looming nearby.

This leaves us with a uneasy question: If human beings return to parts of the Exclusion Zone, what will become of the animals that call this place home? It’s hard to say…

It’s worth noting that most of the villages that could potentially be removed from the Exclusion Zone are already inhabited by a small number of people. Many of those who, at the time of the explosion, lived at the outer edges of the Zone, and even a few who lived deeper in the Zone, have returned during the last 33 years. As research has shown, wild animals already tend to avoid populated areas like those slated to be removed from the Zone, so perhaps this change may not greatly affect them. Perhaps.

The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is currently home to at least six wolf packs, 60 Przewalski horses, thousands of beavers and their dams, otters, moose, many species of fish and waterfowl, at least a few lynxes, and a wandering bear or two, all of which share an uncertain future if human settlement is to once again curtail the wildlife habitat within the Zone. The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is also currently home to the handful of families who came back to their homes after they were forcibly uprooted by a nuclear disaster. It remains to be seen if the people and fauna can all coexist – though history suggests the answer is no.

But perhaps we can do better this time. After all, sooner or later, we’ll all have to learn to coexist with our wild neighbors — not just in the Exclusion Zone, and not just in Ukraine, but everywhere, from Chernobyl to Champaign-Urbana.