35 years on the Chernobyl disaster exclusion zone is safe haven for biodiversity

Chernobyl, Ukraine, April 23 2021: The site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster had turned into a nuclear waste land, now, 35 years after the world’s worst nuclear disaster, it is an unlikely place for a a nature reserve. The ex-Soviet country commemorated the anniversary on Monday as sprouting flora and surging fauna take over deserted tower blocks, shops and office buildings dominated by communist icons. Ukrainian authorities have labelled the area unfit for human habitation for another 24,000 years but a breed of wild horses with rugged coats and rigid manes, is thriving at the site.

Talking about the presence of the horses, Denys Vyshnevsky, head of the scientific department of the Chernobyl nature reserve says, “It’s really a symbol of the reserve and even the exclusion zone in general. Paradoxically, this is a unique opportunity to preserve biodiversity. We’ll be able to recreate the landscape that was here before humans began intensely exploiting the region.”

On April 26, in 1986, an explosion in reactor number 4 left devastation in its wake as swathes of Ukraine and neighboring Belarus were contaminated and led to the creation of a no man’s land within a 30-kilometre radius of the nuclear station. An emergency effort was launched to evacuate dozens of villages and towns.

Now, three decades after the accident, authorities have secured the status of a protected reserve site from UNESCO in deference to the visitors the site attracts.

The stocky wild horses called the Przewalski, named after a Russian scientist Nikolai Przewalski, were discovered in the Gobi desert, are native to Asia and are an endangered species after becoming nearly extinct in the middle of the 20th century due to excessive hunting. They along with elks and wolves have found a haven in the deserted landscape. The horses were released into the Chernobyl landscape in 1998 after another native horse called the Tarpan became extinct. The experiment back then was halted but today the population of the horse has risen to 150 in the exclusion zone and another 60 in Belarus.

As part of a preservation effort, the horse was reintroduced by scientists to areas of Mongolia, China and Russia. According to Sergiy Zhyla, senior researcher, under the right conditions, the Ukrainian herd could eventually increase to 300 or even 500 animals. The global population of the Przewalski horses is now 2700 and after the success of this species in Chernobyl, there is a plan to introduce other endangered species like the European bison to the area. To that end, the reserve researchers are in talks with the World Wildlife Fund.

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