Rewilding in an Unexpected Landscape

Elk are the most common mammals at the reserve. Photograph: Valery Yurko

Most examples of rewilding are defined as human intervention to return wildlife back into habitats where they’ve long disappeared. Thanks to the Guardian for this highly unusual one where the human population are the ones who have left – due to bizarre circumstances, to be sure – and the wildlife have slowly returned to reclaim the habitats left behind.

It’s heartening to believe that the animals may illustrate Nature’s power to heal where human’s have so severely faltered.

Chernobyl: the wildlife haven created when people left

Rare and endangered animals have thrived in the Chernobyl disaster zone since it was evacuated in 1986, as a new wildlife tour in southern Belarus shows

It is 5.30am in southern Belarus. A pink moon hangs over flat fields tinged with frost, and as we arrive at the checkpoint on the edge of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, five hours’ drive south of the capital, Minsk, a dawn chorus of cranes and hoopoes is in full swing.

This may seem an unlikely place to come wildlife watching, but I’m here with the first eco-tour of the Palieski state radioecological reserve (as the Belarusian section of the zone is called).

It was in April 1986 that probably the world’s worst nuclear accident happened, just over the border in northern Ukraine – a dramatisation of the disaster is currently showing on Sky Atlantic. Chernobyl town was evacuated and the exclusion zone today covers 2,600 sq km in Ukraine and 2,100 sq km in Belarus.

Ukraine turned its part of the zone into a tourist attraction several years ago – 50,000 people visited the nuclear reactor and ghost town of Pripyat last year, and it has even hosted a rave. But Belarus didn’t open its Palieski reserve to visitors until last December.

The Ukrainian site is now popular for its eerie ghost town and reactor ruins, but on this side of the border it’s all about the wilderness, and our tour will be a nature-watching trip like no other. The reserve claims to be Europe’s largest experiment in rewilding, and the unlikely beneficiaries of nuclear disaster have been the wolves, bison and bears that now roam the depopulated landscape, and the 231 (of the country’s 334) bird species that can also be found here.

After an initial hitch with our paperwork (few things are bureaucracy-free in Belarus, though new relaxed visa requirements mean Brits are now spared a trip to the embassy near Kensington Gardens), we meet our guide Valery Yurko, a spry ornithologist. Our visit is limited to seven hours, and I am keen to see as much as possible.

We start in the museum – which has some memorably bad taxidermy – before setting off to try to spot the real things. Elk are the most common mammal here, and it doesn’t take us long to see a young male standing with legs half-buried in a patch of swamp.

As we continue along a forest track that was once the main road to the Ukrainian capital Kiev, Yurko says there’s a 50-50 chance we’ll see a wolf. There are around a hundred of these carnivores in the park and as hunting is banned here, the animals are slowly losing their fear of humans…

…The previous day I’d visited one of the reserve’s abandoned settlements, Droniki. When the village’s 232 inhabitants were evacuated, they didn’t have long to pack, and the floors of the wooden houses are still scattered with shoes, cigarette boxes and children’s jotters dated April 1986. It’s a poignant sight: nature may be benefiting, but that came at great cost for the people evacuated from the zone (nearly 350,000 in total), and the millions who have fallen sick or are considered to be “contaminated” by the accident.

The greatest writer on Chernobyl, investigative journalist and Nobel prize-winner Svetlana Alexievich, wrote in her 1997 book, Chernobyl Prayer, that she was “recording the future”. Among Droniki’s crumbling walls and sagging roofs, collapsed fences and barns filled with a mouldering harvest – and in the wider reserve – we see a flash forward to a world without people.

We see the familiar creatures of town and farmland dwindling, and animals long since pushed to the wild edges of Europe taking their place: the sparrows, rooks and white storks are giving way to white-tailed eagles, lynx and wolves.

Read the entire article here.


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