The site of the world's worst nuclear accident is now a haven for wildlife due to the enforced absence of humans, a new study has shown.
Some 116,000 people fled Chernobyl, located on the border of Ukraine and Belarus, after a nuclear reactor exploded on 26 April 1986. A further 220,000 were resettled when a 4,200 square kilometre exclusion zone was put in place around the site of the disaster.
With the help of colleagues from the Polesky State Radioecological Reserve in Belarus, researchers led by Professor Jim Smith from the University of Portsmouth examined data from aerial surveys counting large mammals including roe deer, elk, wild boar and wolves.
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They found that wolves in particular were seven times more common in the exclusion zone than in the surrounding areas – this is due in part to the hunting activities common in Ukraine.
"The numbers of animals we see in Chernobyl is similar to the populations in uncontaminated nature reserves," Prof Smith said. "Whatever negative effects there are from radiation, they are not as large as the negative effects of having people there.
"We're not saying there weren't radiological effects at all, but we can't see effects on [animal] populations as a whole."
The message is striking, he added: "The everyday things we do, such as occupying an area, forestry, hunting and agriculture, are what damages the environment."
Lee Hannah, of Conservation International, told the New Scientist that Chernobyl is a living testament to the resilience of nature. "Wild places can come back if we give them a chance, but we don't want to rely on nuclear disasters to make this happen," he said.
The Guardian claims the findings run counter to previous hypotheses that chronic long-term exposure to radiation would hit animal populations. Critics have also questioned the link between larger animal populations and the lack of human habitation.
"Big mammals have been increasing for the last decades in most of Europe. So Chernobyl is no different,” Anders Pape Moller, of the University of Paris-Sud, told The Guardian.
He added: "The interesting question is whether the increase in Chernobyl is larger than say in Germany, France or Scandinavia."
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