Wild Capital

Wild Capital


Heavily hunted animals live in Chernobyl, because it is safer where there are no humans.


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In the months after the accident, Soviet authorities undertook drastic measures to deal with the catastrophe. Almost 1,000 acres of the Red Forest had perished, and nearly 4 square miles of topsoil around the sarcophagus was scraped away and buried as radioactive waste. Since then, nature has slowly crept in. Once an area of heavy industry and collectivized agriculture, the zone is now nearly indistinguishable from the surrounding countryside. The forest has reclaimed long-abandoned villages and farmland; roads and buildings are being swallowed up by thickets of trees and shrubs. The natural process of radioactive decay has already removed some toxic particles from the environment.

About a decade ago, animal sightings began. Naturalists started to report signs of an apparently remarkable recovery in the ecology of the quarantined territory. They photographed the tracks of a brown bear and saw wolves and boars roaming the streets of the abandoned town of Pripyat. In 2002, a young eagle owl—one of only 100 thought to be living in all of Ukraine at the time—was seen dozing on an abandoned excavator near the sarcophagus. The following year, an endangered white-tailed eagle was captured and radio-tagged within 3 miles of the plant. It seemed the disaster that had banished industry, agriculture, pesticides, cars, and hunting from Chernobyl had inadvertently created a sprawling wildlife park.

A 2006 report by the Chernobyl Forum an international panel of 100 experts assembled by the UN, the World Health Organization, and the International Atomic Energy Agency, lent scientific weight to the evolving notion that the Exclusion Zone was turning into a haven for wildlife. The report, based on environmental, socioeconomic, and human health research, explained that levels of radioactivity in the zone had declined several hundredfolds and took an optimistic view of the disaster's aftermath, both for human beings and animals. Rather, the size and diversity of the animal population had actually expanded in the absence of people. "The Exclusion Zone," the authors concluded, "has paradoxically become a unique sanctuary for biodiversity."


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