By Tanya Silverman
The abandoned city of Pripyat, Ukraine. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The photographs taken in and around the Chernobyl region portray an intriguing and unexpected environment. An area transformed greatly since the 1986 nuclear plant meltdown, such pictures offer evidence as to what happens after human population exits a ‘taboo’ territory.
Aerial shots above the nearby city of Pripyat, Ukraine, show a ghost town with a stocky skyline dominated by uninhabited, blocky Soviet-style apartment buildings. Streets and avenues lack any pedestrians or traffic, but have come to host patches of woods.
Pictures closer into Pripyat portray a bleak, abandoned amusement park with a still, lonely Ferris wheel and dingy, defunct bumper cars. These eerie, unused rides are surrounded by cracked pavement with plantlife growing throughout.
While photos of crackled urban decay in a city frozen in the old Soviet era depict one aspect of human exodus, others show the consequent results of animal entrance.
Sergey Gaschak’s nature photography from around the Chernobyl region portray some of these very creatures. In one photo, burly wild boar run across an isolated road into a green forest. In another, a group of elk wait around a snowy landscape by some trees and shrubs.
Some of Gaschak’s animal photographs were taken by connecting a motion-detecting sensor to a camera in front of a forest stream, figuring it was an area where animals would frequent. This turned out to be good judgment, as the camera was able to snap shots of a wolf, eagle, deer, and lynx in this same spot.
“The lynx was the most surprising,” says Gaschak of the elusive, spotted cat captured crossing through the snowy forest. “That was my first picture of this beautiful animal, and I have to say, the best picture I ever got.”
Sergey Gaschak works at the International Radioecology Laboratory in Kiev, Ukraine, where he is Deputy Director and Head of the Radioecology Research Department. As this scientist has researched Chernobyl for many years, he understands the intricacies of the region’s ecology. Gaschak explains that after the nuclear power plant disaster occurred, most people exited the surrounding territory, abandoning the “fields, gardens, settlements, meadows and even forest.”
During the first few years, this area became overridden with “common agricultural weeds and pests.” Past this initial stage, “wild grasses, shrubs and woods” took over the landscape, all while domestic and synanthropic creatures like house mice, cats, dogs and sparrows mostly disappeared.
“Moose, red deer, roe deer, wild boar, wolf, otter, badgers, beavers, black grouse, and other game animals became common and often more abundant than anywhere else in Ukraine,” says Gaschak.
While the photos and descriptions may seem romantic, Gaschak affirms that Chernobyl cannot be viewed as a safari park; it is not as if a visitor could simply arrive and encounter the wild animals like a tourist attraction. Furthermore, in this Eastern European environment, much of the soil has very poor composition, not to mention the “abandoned waste sites, garbage, construction, and industrial areas” that prevent animals from thriving in many spots.
Though he treasures his photograph of the lynx, Gaschak admits admits that he has never encountered this cat in person, even after hiking thousands of miles through the area. Lynx tend to hide from people, so it is more common to encounter species that do not fear humans, i.e. wild boar, deer, and horses.
While Gaschak and other radioecologists were studying bats in the Chernobyl zone, they were pleased to discover a Great Noctule. This species, which is the biggest bat in Ukraine, had been considered extinct in the country for the past 60 years. They found another Great Noctule again this year, and only in Chernobyl.
Sergei Gaschak hopes that in the future, the Chernobyl zone will be converted into a national park, but that actually happening will be a matter of going through the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources and the necessary governmental steps.
Another interesting series of animal photographs show close-ups of mutated barn swallow that display visible physical abnormalities such as albino feathers, asymmetrical tail feathers, deformed talons. Some of these barn swallow even have noticeable tumors growing around their heads and bottoms.
Tim Mousseau, a Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of South Carolina, explains that he and his colleagues have been studying these birds in accordance to the different levels of radiation around the affected Chernobyl zone. Certain parts of this area are incredibly contaminated by radiation, yet others are relatively clean. Their research confirmed that barn swallow around hotter zones had a higher frequency of such abnormalities.
“There’s this misconception that is perpetuated widely that the Chernobyl zone is this thriving eden, and that there’s wildlife everywhere,” says Mousseau.
Through his years of research, Mousseau states that there needs to be a shift in how people view animals living around Chernobyl. “The question isn’t whether or not there are a occasional sightings of some of these relatively rare species. The question is whether or not they’re affected by contamination once they get there.”
Mousseau also posted some photographs of Prezwalski horse herds strolling through fields. When asked on the background of these photographs, he explains that this breed is a domestic horse that has been “extinct in the wild for over 100 years,” and only alive in zoos and nature preserves.
Humans introduced these horses to the Chernobyl region over a decade ago, and Mousseau has been casually observing them as the years go by. He and the other scientists are interested to learn more about the Prezwalski horses, not only because they are “beautiful and highly charismatic,” but for opportunities of studying genetic mutations.
“Because these horses are all derived from just a few individuals one hundred years ago, there’s not a lot of natural genetic variation within this populations,” says Mousseau. “So we should be able to detect mutations that occur in the Chernobyl area.”
He also sees the Prezwalkski horses as another opportunity to study how animals migrate throughout the Chernobyl region:
“The horses were introduced into the zone that’s quite contaminated, but they’ve since broken up into these smaller herds. Most of the horses are now living in some of the cleaner areas of the zone.”
Mousseau is also involved in studying biological effects around the Fukushima nuclear power plant. To research this more recent nuclear disaster in Japan, he applies many skills he has mastered and conclusions he has determined from his years of scientific work in Chernobyl.
As shown in recent photographs, Chernobyl today is not a scorched dead zone of catastrophic nuclear annihilation. The regional wildlife depicted in some of these pictures may offer a more hopeful perspective, but as scientists have pointed out, such images should not lead people to think that this area is a touristic safari park or utopian wildlife paradise.
The area surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear power plant meltdown contains the shell of a city frozen in the dusk of the Soviet era, varied areas with different levels of radiation, forests taking over former civilization, unique ecology, reintroduced species, and specific mutations. Alluring photographs and investigative scientific studies help us visualize and further understand aspects of this accidental environment that has developed over the past 27 years.