Some 30 years after the world's worst nuclear accident, Chornobyl has evolved from a disaster zone into a nature reserve teeming with elk, deer, and wolves, a scientific study has found.
The remarkable turnaround in the area, which was declared off-limits for people after the accident in 1986, suggests radiation contamination is not hindering wildlife from breeding and thriving.
The study, which was published October 5 in the Current Biology journal, also shows how wild mammals are drawn to areas left untouched by humans despite such contamination.
"When humans are removed, nature flourishes -- even in the wake of the world's worst nuclear accident," said Jim Smith, a specialist in earth and environmental sciences at Britain's University of Portsmouth.
"This doesn't mean radiation is good for wildlife, just that the effects of human habitation, including hunting, farming, and forestry, are a lot worse," he said. "It's very likely that wildlife numbers at Chornobyl are now much higher than they were before the accident."
After a fire and explosion at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant in 1986 threw clouds of radioactive particles into the air, thousands of people left the area and never returned.
Smith and co-researchers took the opportunity to see what happens to wildlife in an area where contamination is heavy but people are largely absent.
Earlier studies in the 4,200-square-kilometer Chornobyl Exclusion Zone showed major radiation effects and pronounced reductions in wildlife populations.
But new evidence, based on long-term census data, shows that mammal populations have bounced back.
The study found a relative abundance of elk, roe deer, red deer, and wild boar -- with population rates similar to those found in four designated, uncontaminated nature reserves in the region. The number of wolves living in and around the Chornobyl site is more than seven times greater than can be found in comparable nature reserves.
And helicopter survey data also reveals rising trends in the abundance of elk, roe deer, and wild boar from one to 10 years after the accident.
The findings "illustrate the resilience of wildlife populations when freed from the pressures of human habitation," said Jim Beasley of the University of Georgia in the United States, who co-led the work.
The results may also hold lessons for understanding the potential long-term impact on wildlife of the more recent Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan, the researchers said.