It seems like a strange place to call a wildlife park: Nearly 30 years after the most catastrophic nuclear incident in global history, Chernobyl’s exclusion zone has turned into a paradise for animals of all species and sizes. A variety of raptors, deer, big cats, foxes, bears and birds have moved into the region, taking advantage of a vast habitat with almost no humans. That habitat, though, is contaminated with radioactive materials, and scientists still hotly debate the potential costs of radiation exposure to the animals of Chernobyl, some of whom have become famous.

Researchers have seen an explosion of wildlife at the site in recent years, with camera traps providing an opportunity to look deep into the world of the region’s animals without disturbing them. Stunning photography shows animals like wolves and bears roaming freely in the exclusion zone, unconcerned about the potential for human visitors. Perhaps most astonishingly, a population of Przeswalski’s horses, an endangered species critical to the biological and evolutionary history of modern equids, is booming in the region—which isn’t exactly what one might expect, given the radioactive contamination.

At the time of the reactor failure at Chernobyl, dozens of workers were killed, with numerous more, along with aid workers and nearby residents, sickening in the days and weeks to come. Tens of thousands of people are facing potentially prolonged and painful premature deaths as a result of their exposure to extremely high levels of radiation at Chernobyl, and the exclusion zone won’t be safe for humans for another 20,000 years—at least. At the heart of the zone, close to the failed reactor, radiation levels still remain lethally high.

A group of Przewalski’s horses that had escaped from captivity into the quarantined area were thriving. It seemed the disaster had created a sprawling wildlife park.
Photo: Guillaume Herbaut,

So how are animals not just living in the zone, but actively thriving? It’s a subject of vigorous debate for researchers who work in the exclusion zone. Some, like Anders Møller, argue that radiation is causing clear birth defects and impairments in animals around the site, based on his studies focusing on the barn swallow population. He sees the region as a “sink” that draws in animals from surrounding regions, as they’re attracted by the prospect of a wild space with no interfering and potentially dangerous humans. Others contend that the exclusion zone is safe, especially when considering concentrations of overall animal populations. As the population increases, it’s an indicator that something must be going right.

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