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Humans Are More Toxic to Wildlife than Chernobyl

How the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster became a surprisingly abundant wildlife refuge.
Wild boars return to Chernobyl. Image: Valeriy Yurko

The Chernobyl disaster remains the worst nuclear accident in human history, with a death toll that is difficult to tally even decades later. Given the sobering reach of the resulting radiation contamination, you might expect the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone—the 4,200 square kilometers in the immediate vicinity of the explosion—to have suffered serious long-term ecological damage.

Surprisingly, though, a study published today in Current Biology shows that wildlife in the exclusion zone is actually more abundant than it was before the disaster. According to the authors, led by Portsmouth University professor of environmental science Jim Smith, the recovery is due to the removal of the single biggest pressure on wildlife—humans.


"The wildlife at Chernobyl is very likely better than it was before the accident, not because radiation is good for animals, but because human occupation is much worse," Smith told me over email.

"We were trying to emphasize that this study is a remarkable illustration of an obvious, but important message," he said. "It is ordinary human habitation and use (farming, forestry, hunting) of land which does most ecological damage."

Roe deer near Chernobyl. Image: Tatyana Deryabina

Smith and his co-authors came to this conclusion by comparing helicopter surveys of mammal populations in the Chernobyl exclusion zone to those from uncontaminated wildlife reserves. They found that the disaster site supports similar numbers of elk, deer, and boar, and in an interesting twist, seven times as many wolves.

"This is most likely due to different human pressure," Smith said regarding Chernobyl's high wolf population. "[T]he other reserves are smaller and have human habitation within them."

Just three short decades later, the site of this cataclysmic accident is now teeming with life, defying earlier expectations of long-term ecological damage. While some species have had a harder time bouncing back from radiation exposure—such as invertebrates and the birds that feed on them—Smith's team found that mammals are thriving in the absence of humans.

"Several previous studies of the Chernobyl exclusion zone indicated major radiation effects and pronounced reductions in wildlife populations at dose rates well below those thought to cause significant impacts," Smith's team pointed out in the new paper. "In contrast, our long-term empirical data showed no evidence of a negative influence of radiation on mammal abundance."

On its face, this is good news, as ecological recovery in any region is something to be celebrated.

But it is also unsettling to learn that mere contact with our species is more toxic to wildlife than the Chernobyl disaster. Humans have a drive to explore and settle new frontiers, but in a world with dwindling wilderness and biodiversity, it is past time we change our tack and give wild spaces some evidently much-needed breathing room.

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