The single most dangerous moment during our trip to Chernobyl happened on the road on our way in. We were still aways from the checkpoint guarding entry into the heart of the Exclusion Zone, crossing the forests of the larger Zone. Our driver Alexander didn’t spare the gas pedal and well inside the Zone, the roads got old and bumpy – “more hole than road,” as he put it. A hare sprinted across the road right in front of us, and Alexander swerved to avoid it.
Nothing happened, luckily, and all we got was a little scare. It wasn’t the only time we had a surprise animal crossing in front of the car in the Zone. The adventurous overtakings on the more well trafficked highways before that (photo) might have counted among the more risky moments too. But that little occurrence with the hare is an illuminating facet of the Zone all in all: it’s full of animal life.
We didn’t see much more of the wild kind that night, but as we found our way to Hotel Pripyat inside Chornobyl town, animal life was the most immediate and defining feature of that place too, because of the dogs. They were everywhere.
While I am a dog-person through and through, I felt a little apprehensive at first, hearing dogs bark in the night. I’ve never lived anywhere with stray dogs roaming the streets, but I didn’t want naively to assume that they would be friendly.
Turns out I was wrong. These dogs were sweethearts.
Anywhere we went, there were dogs wagging their tales and coming for cuddles. My hands kept getting filthy from all the dust and dirt they had in their fur.
There might of course be badly behaved ones in the mix but during our two days there, I was not once greeted with tension or growling. (I didn’t try to go near the car-chaser dog, however. He might have been friendly, too, but he had developed a bad habit of barking and trying to bite the wheels of passing cars outside our hotel.)
I asked Gennady and the others who work in the Zone about why the dogs looked relatively healthy, friendly and well, despite being abandoned. They said that a lot of people work in the area and while they stay away from their families, they appreciate the company. They feed the dogs. There’s also a program to neuter them to stop them from multiplying all too much.
There’s something else that keeps their population in check, too: wolves. The Chornobyl town itself, all its populated buildings and offices had resident dogs chilling around their yards and sleeping at their entrances. The Chernobyl Biosphere building alone had ten. But the dogs only survive where the people are. Should they get too curious about the wilderness, the wolves pick them off.
The wolves don’t stay very far from populated areas, however. One of the Biosphere staff, Denis, had seen a wolf on the shore of the cooling pond just the day before we arrived. We were eager to check the place ourselves.
The reservoir that used to house the cooling water to the nuclear plants had been mostly emptied, and a jungle of reeds and bushes had grown in its stead. We didn’t see wolves, unfortunately. What we did find were tracks. The shores of the little ponds were dotted with tracks of all kind – possibly otter, fox, badger, deer, beaver, raccoon dog and marten (in addition to the wolf tracks). They come to the ponds to drink, look for mussels, and hunt. We spotted herons wading in the water, and white-tailed eagle roosting on the trees along the wetland’s edges. The site of the worst nuclear accident in history is a lot different than we might think.
What about the levels of radiation? My measures here ranged from about 1 to 3 µSv/h (microsieverts per hour) – still less than the 4.8 µSv/h on my flight over to Ukraine. I’ll write more about the context of radiation levels in the next post.
Mice hunting in the bushland by the cooling pond
I got to tag along a team of Ukrainian scientists who study a new population of mice that moved in to colonize the area that used to be flooded with cooling water until several years ago. They were doing their morning rounds to check mouse traps in the thickets. They told me that there was never any shortage of mice, and this day was no different: most traps were occupied. (One lively mouse even managed to leap away to freedom. Go Chernobyl mice!)
The group were working to elucidate whether they could find differences in the genome of the mice populations here compared to populations in areas with lower background radiation. The differences weren’t easy to find. The overall health and population sizes of the animals didn’t betray any effects, even though their surroundings had about ten times larger ambient radiation than global average. By far the most influential factors in the lives of the animals were “regular” threats like drought, floods, and forest fires.
Even more amazing were the insights from professor Mike Wood‘s research. He works in the award-winning TREE project, where they have tracked Chernobyl wildlife with camera traps. He had personally worked a great deal in the Red Forest, the most contaminated square kilometers of land near the power plant, and I was eager to pick his brain about the animal life there.
Among Mike’s 680 data collection points in the Red Forest, the ambient background radiation was some 200 times above the global average – 46 µSv/h (ranging from 1 to 270). Yet the general health and abundance of the animal species observed was still indistinguishable from wildlife areas with low background radiation.
Even considering what I already knew about the environmenal effects of radiation (see my earlier article A Look At Chernobyl’s Effects on Nature), I would have thought that in the Red Forest with its hotspots, like the 270 µSv maximum location in Mike’s survey, surely there we would find some clearly observable effects on the wildlife. But it turns out it isn’t so simple.
It goes to show that I am by no means immune to our common human tendency to overestimate the risks of strange and artificial threats, like the radiation from a power plant accident. These instincts or cognitive shortcuts are so deeply rooted that we will always assign a special respect to unfamiliar, invisible risks in our thinking.
The wild horses of Chernobyl
The highlight of the trip for me was the chance to come face to face with a herd of endangered Przewalski horses. Having at one point become near extinct, Przewalski horses have been reintroduced in only a few natural parks in Mongolia and Central Asia – and at Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
Having an experienced zoologist Marina Shkvyria there to help us drive around and look for them in their favourite areas, and explain the nuances of their herd dynamics, and it felt like my birthday had arrived half a year early. Marina knew this herd well after years of observation. They lived about ten kilometers from the power plant in a vast landscape of forests and grasslands. The radiation levels there? The same boring ones as back at home. There was not trace of the 10-fold levels my my dosimeter had recorded at the cooling pond.
While searching, we walked over a sandy patch of the grassy plains. Marina told me that it was one of their preferred sleeping and rolling spots and also where they would come to give birth. Other times the horses have learned to take advantage of the abandoned buildings in the area, seeking shelter inside. But the human-made environment could have its drawbacks, and there had been incidents of horses getting trapped and dying in the houses.
This herd was grazing out in the open. There were no buildings for kilometers around. It was difficult to spot the golden brown horses among the ripe golden hay first, but Marina knew where to look, and after a bit of trekking over the plains, we found them! The horses came to within a hundred meters of us or less. Video Marina took to help keep count of the number of horses in the herd found below.
Meeting a thriving population of these unique and beautiful animals was a horse-loving biologist’s dream come true.
Marina pointed out to me in whispers the way the leading stallion had gathered his herd and come to challenge us, then sent their calves and mares out to withdraw in the cover of the trees, while he distracted us with his advance, then circling around us to join with his flock and make a controlled retreat.
Returning from our exhilarating day out on the wild horse plains, we readied ourselves for our final day in Chernobyl. The hotel Pripyat had no warm water (apparently not a rare occurrence), and I made do with a cold quick cold shower after a long day in the sun. I posted a short video report on my radiation doses during the day, shot in front of our hotel on Facebook, found here.
The next morning broke just as sunny, with concerts of birdlife singing, insects chirping, and as we drove in to the power plant, three herons took flight above the units 3 and 4, flying over the channel by the road. Nature was everywhere. My short video good morning from Chernobyl here.
I made another video in front of the power plant, waiting for our meeting with the staff. I reflected on how great a juxtaposition it was to see all this natural life so near the reactor sites. The wildlife doesn’t care about the thought of the radiation, since its presence at these levels has no practical effect on them. The animals aren’t afraid.
As we made our appointment with the power plant representative, what did we see? But a meter or two before the Very Official ID checkpoint at the entrance there was a friendly stray sleeping in the corner. Of course.
In the next part: it turns out we do glow in the dark in Chernobyl. I’ll include a photo collage comparison of the radiation doses I acquired in different locations, including the cooling pond, the forests around the power plant, the plant itself, as well as the plane on my way there.
The past year of the pandemic had me sidetracked from my blogging. I am happy I finally had time to finish describing my experiences. The whole series:
- Visiting Chernobyl, Day One, The Most Dangerous Part of the Trip: Kyiv
- The Town That Remained Despite the Chernobyl Accident
- The Animals of Chernobyl – Trip Report, Day Three
- Contaminated Concepts about Chernobyl
For further articles on Chernobyl, you can read my pieces: “What About Chernobyl?” World’s Deadliest Energy Accidents in Perspecive and “What About Radioactive Wastelands?” A Look at Chernobyl’s Effects on Nature, or on radiation: Radiation and Cancer Risk – What Do We Know? and Radiation Exposures at a Glance.
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