What Is Happening to Wildlife Inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone After Russian Invasion?

Since the world's worst nuclear disaster at the Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine in 1986, a 1,000 square mile area surrounding the site has been off-limits to humans.

Over the years, wildlife has returned to the exclusion zone, which due to a lack of human disturbance, has become a thriving ecosystem. Scientists have observed brown bears, wolves, lynx, bison, moose, foxes, and many more wild animals in the area. Around 200 species of birds have also returned to the zone, including a particularly rare species of eagle.

But on February 24, the first day of the Ukraine invasion, Russian soldiers captured Chernobyl and troops have been massed there for 12 days. Experts suspect the strategic benefits of basing military operations in the exclusion zone are numerous–it is a largely unpopulated area, connected by a highway that heads straight to Ukraine's capital city, Kyiv. This means troops are likely to stay there for quite some time.

So what could be affecting wildlife in the exclusion zone amid the invasion?

Donkey Chernobyl
A picture shows horses on a snow covered field in the Chernobyl exclusions zone. GENYA SAVILOV/Getty Images

Hunting and noise pollution

Timothy Mousseau, professor of biological sciences at the University of South Carolina, told Newsweek that military action in Chernobyl will be seriously affecting the wildlife that lives there "directly and indirectly."

He said: "Although we are not entirely sure how many troops traversed the exclusion zone, based on the size of the military convoy heading to Kyiv, it was probably tens of thousands of men. One might expect these men to be hunting wildlife along the way."

As well as the direct impact of hunting, noise pollution from thousands of troop vehicles will likely drive the wildlife away from the roads, Mousseau said.

He said if this disturbance continues, it is likely the wildlife will gradually move away from the zone, into adjacent areas.

Landmines

The military action could also pose more serious, long-term, risks to the area's wildlife. The area may be carpeted with landmines, Mousseau said, which could pose a "very significant threat" to larger wildlife that roams the land, such as deer and bison, "for many years to come."

This is because landmines cause land degradation, and through toxic explosives, damage soils' and the surrounding environment.

Forest fires

"Military activity in this region could be very risky with respect to forest fires," Mousseau said. "The region as a whole is a tinderbox and is filled with dead organic matter and trees that were killed but not burned by previous forest fires in the region. One incendiary device could spark a major forest fire in the region."

Forest fires would drive wildlife straight out of the area and make the area inhabitable for some time.

Fox
A picture shows a fox in grass not far from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant Sean Gallup/Getty Images

A lack of research

Carmel Mothersill, professor and research chair in environmental radiobiology at McMaster University, Canada, told Newsweek that scientists "have no idea" what is happening, or what will happen to wildlife in the area.

The main concern is whether scientists will be able to continue research efforts in the area, which is vital for the long-term future of many species which live in the zone.

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 Chernobyl may now be a thriving ecosystem, research continues to show that the radiation has harmed animals, birds, and insects.

"Many [researchers] have long term projects in the area. It is one of the few places on earth where recovery of ecosystems can be studied," Mothersill said. "[The area] is crucial for re-wilding projects, for studies of adaptation, for efforts to restore biodiversity ... Chernobyl allowed us to get field information about the impacts of radiation on species populations and ecosystems."

For the long-term benefit of wildlife in the area, Motehrsill said it is "vital" that research in the area can continue.