Following the world’s worst nuclear disaster, on April 26, 1986, at Chernobyl in Ukraine, everybody evacuated. And because of the lack of human disturbance over the years, wildlife gradually returned to certain areas.

But since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February, this has changed.

The 1986 disaster resulted from a meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant’s reactor. This caused two devastating explosions, which led to radioactive debris and fuel pouring out into the area.

As a result, a 1,000-square-mile area surrounding the site was made off-limits to humans and dubbed the “exclusion zone.” And although the area is still highly radioactive today, in areas where there was less fallout, wildlife populations grew and created thriving ecosystems.

Comp Russian Soldiers and Wildlife in Chernobyl
Horses wander near a forest road in the Chernobyl zone in Ukraine on April 13, 2021, and a Russian soldier (inset) stands guard at the Luhansk power plant in the town of Shchastya. Since Russia’s invasion of the country, wildlife appears to have dispersed in occupied areas near the power plant, the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster.
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Scientists have observed brown bears, wolves, lynx, bison, moose, foxes and many other wild animals in the area. Around 200 species of birds have also returned to the zone, including a particularly rare species of eagle.

Tim Mousseau, a professor of biological sciences at the University of South Carolina, told Newsweek that although highly radioactive areas have not been a haven for the wildlife, in parts that were not as contaminated the wildlife populations have increased. He said this is likely because of reduced hunting in the region.

Last year, Russia’s military took control of the nuclear power plant and the surrounding area, from February 24 to March 31, when those forces transferred control of the power plant back to Ukrainian authorities. So far, scientists cannot be certain of the long-term impact that military action has had on the ecosystems in the occupied areas. But preliminary investigations have suggested that, at least for now, most wildlife is no longer there.

“Although our wildlife monitoring studies are still continuing, they have not been as comprehensive as in the past because of land mines in the region and the concerns of a new invasion,” Mousseau said. “Our very preliminary assessment is that many of the animals dispersed away from occupied areas during the invasion.”

He went on: “Our most recent observations are not sufficient to determine if the initial observations of movement away from the occupied areas near the power plant are permanent. Only time and continued study will tell us about the long-term consequences of the troop movements through the region.”

The wildlife dispersal could be due to a multitude of reasons, land mines being a major one. The mines will prove to be a significant risk to larger wildlife that roams the land, such as deer and bison, and the effects of this could continue for years.

Before military action took place throughout the area, Chernobyl was a vital research area for scientists. But now those research efforts are becoming more difficult.

For years, the exclusion zone has been one of the only places on earth where scientists can collect data for re-wilding projects and assess the impact of radiation on wildlife. While wildlife can survive in Chernobyl, research continues to show how the radiation has harmed animals, birds and insects.

In September 2022, scientists reported that the radioactive fallout resulted in the rapid evolution of species. For example, the radiation from the power plant accident resulted in the changing of the skin coloration of the Eastern tree frog in Ukraine. It turned from green to black, a study in the journal Evolutionary Applications reported.

The military action in Ukraine may prevent scientists from continuing research into findings like this.

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