An Atomic Safari

Friday, March 4th, 2011

Henry Shukman describes his visit to a primeval, teeming Eden:

The wild boar is standing 30 or 40 yards away, at the bottom of a grassy bank, staring right at me. Even from this distance I can see its outrageously long snout, its giant pointed ears, and the spiny bristles along its back. It looks part porcupine, a number of shades of ocher and gray. And it’s far bigger than I expected, maybe chest-high to a man. The boar is like some minor forest god straight from the wilderness, gazing wild-eyed at the strange spectacle of a human being. For a moment it seems to consider charging me, then thinks better of it. When it trots away, it moves powerfully, smoothly, on spindly, graceful legs twice as long as a pig’s, and vanishes into the trees.

I climb back into our VW van, tingling all over. The sighting bodes well. I’ve come to what is being dubbed Europe’s largest wildlife refuge in early July, when I knew spotting animals wouldn’t be so easy. (Winter, with its scarcity of food and lack of foliage, makes them more visible.) And within a couple of hours I’ve ticked a wild boar off the list. Maybe luck is on our side.

But luck isn’t our only obstacle to wildlife spotting here. This is northern Ukraine’s Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, a huge area, some 60 miles across in places, that’s been off-limits to human habitation since 1986.

So, it’s a primeval, teeming, irradiated Eden:

A handful of dilapidated roads cross the zone, half-overgrown with weeds and grasses, and the whole area is littered with pockets of intense radiation, but nature doesn’t seem to mind. All nature seems to care about is that the people, along with their domestic animals, are for the most part gone. The zone is reverting to one big, untamed forest, and it all sounds like a fantastic success story for nature: remove the humans and the wilderness bounces right back. Lured by tales of mammals unknown in Europe since the Dark Ages, we’re setting out on an atomic safari.
The world beyond the apocalypse may not be so great for humans, but for the other denizens of the planet it looks like a bonanza. Today there are around 5,000 adult wild boars in the Chernobyl Zone. In 1995 there were many more, but they suffered an epidemic and have now stabilized. There are 25 to 30 wolf packs, a total of maybe 180 adults. Many more lynx live here than before, along with foxes, barsuks (a Ukrainian badger), hundreds of red deer, and thousands of roe deer and elk. Out of the disaster comes a paradise of wildlife. The Garden of Eden is regenerating.
House mice, which thrived on grains no longer grown here, have been replaced by forest and field mice. Likewise with the bird species. But it’s the larger mammals we’re interested in.

On the surface, Igor says, the wildlife seems to be thriving, but under the fur and hide, the DNA of most species has become unstable. They’ve eaten a lot of food contaminated with cesium and strontium. Even though the animals look fine, there are differences at the chromosomal level in every generation, as yet mostly invisible. But some have started to show: there are bird populations with freakishly high levels of albinism, with 20 percent higher levels of asymmetry in their feathers, and higher cancer rates. There are strains of mice with resistance to radioactivity—meaning they’ve developed heritable systems to repair damaged cells. Covered in radioactive particles after the disaster, one large pine forest turned from green to red: seedlings from this Red Forest placed in their own plantation have grown up with various genetic abnormalities. They have unusually long needles, and some grow not as trees but as bushes. The same has happened with some birch trees, which have grown in the shape of large, bushy feathers, without a recognizable trunk at all.

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