Friday, October 4, 2013

Radioactive Wolves: Chernobyl ~ 25 years after (PBS Nature)

What happens when the human population disappears, abruptly?  This question was reviewed in a 2008 film entitled Life After People shown on History Channel.  We have what might be considered a reasonable facsimile.

What was once the Soviet Union's breadbasket, became an abandoned unlivable wilderness.  Man-made structures all over the region have been reclaimed in one manner or another.  The nuclear disaster that was Chernobyl in April 1986 has indelibly changed the landscape in it immediate vicinity.  And depending on your perspective, that is both a good and a bad thing.  People are restricted.  Nature runs freely.

The beavers are given credit for recreating the Pinsk Marshes, drained by industrious people many years ago for feeding the Russian people.  The area known as the exclusion zone, the zone considered humanly inhabitable, is approx. 2600 sq km.  The nuclear disaster has vacated land once dominated by human activities.  No longer. 

It is rumored by locals that 300 wolves roam the countryside.  Studies have certainly documented the re-invasion of the site by wildlife, including wolves.  Their best estimate with the data they currently have from DNA and satellite collars for tracking  is more like 120 wolves, a similar density to the surrounding lands.  And there are many other notable realities.

The Red Forest is green again. The peregrines have the pick of the penthouses and vast areas of abundant prey. And healthy populations of white-tailed eagles feast on carrion in winter, and fish during the summer. The relatively high wolf population and their smaller size relative to the local large ungulates has led to their dependence upon beavers, which make up 60% of their diet in a local control area. This has initiated a slowdown and even reversal of the re-establishment of the Marshes. Beaver dams in disrepair and water levels receding but very healthy wolf populations.

Since the last ice age, this land has supported a broad range of large wildlife, including moose, bison, but also wild horses.  The Przewalski's horse was last wild is the Ukraine in 1879.  Now the last species of wild horse left on earth have been re-established as wild herds on the lands as well from planned introductions.  An effort to restore the lands original biodiversity.  It is a shame that Ukrainian poachers have thwarted the real potential growth of the wild horse population.

However, these lands have endured two world wars, and the improvement craze of the Stalin era.  And ironically, the world's largest nuclear disaster has allowed for its return to a unique refuge for endangered species.

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