The wolf is a species that awakens mixed passions. For some it represents a serious threat to extensive livestock farming and rural traditions. For others it is the symbol of wild nature and a basic piece for the balance of ecosystems.
Despite being a protected species throughout Europe, it is incessantly persecuted. The wolf has continued to be hunted both in countries where it is scarce, such as Sweden and Norway, and in countries where it is more frequent, such as Spain. Hounded to death in much of Europe, the wolf ended up cornered in a few remote havens. Paradoxically, Chernobyl has become one of them.
It is now 35 years since the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant (Ukraine). This accident, the most serious in nuclear history, led to the evacuation of some 350,000 people and the creation of an area with limited human settlement. This area of more than 4,000 km² was basically depopulated, without human activity and with wild animals as the only occupants. This situation has continued to this day.
Today the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is home to a great diversity of fauna, including many of the large European mammals, such as the northern lynx, the brown bear and also the wolf.
The wolves of Chernobyl
At the time of the accident the wolves were present in Chernobyl, although intensely persecuted by the local population. Three decades later, Chernobyl maintains one of the highest densities of wolves in Europe. Field studies in the Belarusian part of the exclusion zone have revealed that more than 100 individuals live there per 1,000 km². Wolves are seven times more abundant in that area than in nearby nature reserves.
Furthermore, the abundance of wolves in Chernobyl is not conditioned by radiation levels. The species occupies the entire area, from the least contaminated areas to environments such as the Red Forest, one of the most radioactive places on the planet. To date, no negative effects of radiation have been detected on the wolves living in Chernobyl.
Some researchers believe that the presence of wolves in Chernobyl is only a reflection of the increase in their populations throughout Europe. But this does not justify why they are so abundant there, more than in any other area, nor why they occupy all the optimal habitats in Chernobyl, regardless of the radiation level.
Several keys explain the abundance of wolves in Chernobyl. The absence of direct persecution by humans, absent from the area, is the main one. Maintaining a very large area free from human presence is decisive. Compared to the more than 4,000 km² of Chernobyl, the Picos de Europa National Park occupies only about 650 km². The exclusion zone is also home to a great abundance of the main natural prey of the wolf: elk, deer, wild boar and beaver. Without human interference, even despite the radioactive environment, the wolf and its prey maintain a totally natural predator-prey system.
Wolves on the move
Recently a juvenile wolf equipped by scientists with a GPS transmitter collar has been detected dispersing from Chernobyl to areas outside. This reflects that Chernobyl begins to act as a place from which fauna spread to nearby areas, and not as a poor quality area in which animals enter and die from radiation.
The movement of this wolf does not differ from that carried out by many migratory species that use Chernobyl during the breeding season or the winter season, and does not constitute a risk to fauna elsewhere. The dispersal of young individuals is a natural process in these animals, the result of the need to search for new territories in populations with a high density. In no way does it contribute to expanding mutations caused by radiation that may be negative for the species.
The future of the Chernobyl wolves
The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone now faces, three decades after the accident, the challenge of defining its future and, with it, that of the wolves that inhabit it.
It will be necessary to reconcile the management of an area that is still contaminated, with the dismantling of the nuclear power plant, increasing tourism and the conservation of nature.
In Chernobyl, there is an opportunity to preserve an area almost unique in Europe as a place dedicated not only to the memory of the accident, but also to the study and conservation of nature. The maintenance of this large area will be vital for the conservation of a multitude of threatened species.
35 years after the nuclear accident that was supposed to end life in the area for millennia, Chernobyl has become one of the great European refuges for the hunted wolf. And so it should continue.