Something odd seems to be going on these days at Chernobyl, a place famous as the site of the worst nuclear accident in human history. Though thirty-three years have passed since that accident, Chernobyl should still be a complete wasteland, a radioactive desert where nothing and no one can survive. And it is true that no humans inhabit this dangerous and eerie landscape anymore. Yet wildlife there is apparently thriving.

An unimaginable disaster

Chernobyl: the name is synonymous with disaster. The explosion at the nuclear facility occurred in April 1986 during a routine technical test on reactor four. It wasn’t the blast itself that was so deadly, however. The real danger came from the enormous amounts of radiation the blast released into the atmosphere, reportedly nearly 400 times more radiation than was released by the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

The impact of all this radiation was catastrophic. In the immediate aftermath, 350,000 people were evacuated from the nearby town of Prypiat. The radiation levels tested so high that none of these residents were ever allowed to return home. Worse, some studies suggest that since the accident as many as 500,000 people have died from radiation-related cancers caused by the fallout.

Wildlife in the area was deeply affected as well. Pine trees near the blast turned a reddish brown and eventually died, creating an area known famously as the “red forest.” A large number of animals died in the wake of the event, and between 1986 and 1990, almost 350 domestic animals – dogs, cows, horses – were born with serious deformities, an increase of 70 times over the rate prior to the event. The entire area was secured and designated unsafe, an exclusion zone.

But while no human beings now live near Chernobyl, the spot has somehow become a haven for wildlife of all kinds, including some endangered species.

In the wake of the disaster, something survives

Many ecologists predicted the area around Chernobyl would become nothing more than a desert after the explosion, a region all but inhospitable to life. And early effects of the radiation fallout, such as the “red forest,” seemed to confirm these predictions. Yet against all odds, Chernobyl has become home to a wide variety of animals. from wolves and bison to brown bears, lynx, and over 200 species of birds. And according to scientific studies such as the TREE project, which uses mounted cameras to track animal movement in the area, the number of animals around Chernobyl seems to be increasing, even at levels of the highest radiation.

Some of these animals are actually endangered species, including the Prezwalski’s horses that now roam in large herds through the area. In other words, the site, which should still be deadly to all living creatures, is now actually serving as a wildlife sanctuary, a refuge for animals who might otherwise have no place to go.

All of this biological success, though, raises an awkward question: could this man-made disaster somehow have had a positive effect on the environment?

Will this strange recovery last?

There seems to be little doubt that wildlife around Chernobyl is doing well if progress is measured by numbers alone. Populations are increasing at healthy rates among animals both small and large, Vegetation seems to be thriving as well. However, some scientists question whether this success can be sustained. Many argue that increases in wildlife in the region have come about simply because humans abandoned it. It is only natural, they suggest, that nature would reclaim a deserted territory. Eventually, the theory goes, these animals too will fall victim to radiation. Victor Fenchuk, project manager of the Belarus-based Wildlife Conservation Program, notes Chernobyl “could be an ecological ‘trap.’ where animals move in and […] and then develop health problems.”

And in fact, there are some signs this may be happening. Some insects around Chernobyl, for instance, seem to be living shorter and shorter lives. In addition, there has been increased albinism among some of the bird populations.

Other animals’ adaptations, though, seem to be of a more positive kind. Frogs in the exclusion zone of highest radiation have apparently developed darker skin-color, leading some scientists to speculate that this is some sort of defensive adaptation to the high levels of radiation. In short, the wildlife may be changing, but it seems to be figuring out how to live in this unlikely space.

Trying to learn the lessons of Chernobyl

It may still be too early to know if the plants and animals who have reclaimed the territory around Chernobyl will succeed or fail in the face of the massive radiation that was once dumped there in a matter of hours. Already, though, scientists are beginning to draw some conclusions about this unusual wildlife refuge.

Some have suggested that perhaps plants and animals are more resistant to radiation’s effects than we had previously known. Is so, does this mean that our long-term impact on the environment is not as damaging as we have come to believe?

Alternatively, a number of scientists argue that what’s happening at Chernobyl actually demonstrates something quite different: that even a toxic waste dump without humans is safer for nature than any environment that includes us.

Others maintain that contamination levels from Chernobyl were not as severe as originally thought. The Soviets built a containment building around the damaged reactor soon after it exploded, and the BBC has reported that 97% of the reactor’s radiation remains inside this building. However, this containment facility was built to last only thirty years, and we are now thirty-three years after the event. If the remaining problems of Chernobyl are not dealt with soon, if the reactor is not deconstructed and decontaminated, it may be that we risk finishing off once and for all the wildlife that, so far, has apparently managed to survive our mistake.