The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone consists of a thousand square miles around the abandoned nuclear plant that's off limits to people except in the name of scientific research. The lack of people has turned the area into a surprising sanctuary for wildlife that have flourished in the abandoned region, but scientists aren't sure what the radiation will do to the wildlife population.
Wild BoarViktor Drachev/AFP/Getty Images
The Exclusion Zone encompasses an area that crosses the border between Ukraine to Belarus that is now teeming with wildlife in the absence of people. There are lots of wild boar, tested to be highly radioactive since they feed on mushrooms and truffles in the contaminated ground. The radioactive fallout from Chernobyl didn't just affect Ukraine — wild boar as far away as Germany have been found to be radioactive.
Radiation testing is done on farm animals and much of the wildlife in and around the exclusion zone, but scientists have yet to test the famed Eurasian Lynx found there. The Lynx had been almost extinct in Europe for more than a hundred years with almost the entire population living in Siberia. The exclusion zone has given the Lynx a haven to thrive in Europe once again- but no one is sure how radioactive that population might be.
Red DeerS. Gashchak/chasingame.com
As the meadows and forests have taken over the once-populated area around Chernobyl, deer populations have been on the rise as well, including red and roe deer. Of course they eat the grass growing out of contaminated ground, meaning they're radioactive and not fit for human consumption –– even if you're brave enough to venture into the exclusion zone to hunt. Don't worry though, the deer haven't developed creepy glowing eyes.
Moose are another brand of beast that had once vanished from the area around Chernobyl, only to see a population boom again after people left. Scientists haven't been able to test the moose now in the exclusion zone, but Swedish moose were found to be radioactive with the fallout after the disaster in the 1980s. It's a safe bet these guys living at ground zero are pretty radioactive too.
White-Tailed EagleS. Gashchak/chasingame.com
The White-Tailed Eagle with it's massive six to eight-foot wingspan is another animal that's making a comeback near Chernobyl after being absent from the area since the nineteenth century. The big bird of prey is similar to the American Bald Eagle, now filling the same ecological niche in the nuclear disaster zone. Scientists fear the resurgent eagle population will become radioactive as radiation works its way up the food chain.
Przewalski's HorseViktor Drachev/AFP/Getty Images
A worker of the Belarussian Radiation Ecology Reserve measures the level of radiation at Belarussian village Vorotets, inside the exclusion zone and around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. Behind him are a couple of endangered wild Przewalski's horses that aren't at all native to the region, but were released into the reserve as part of a conservation effort despite the radiation dangers.
CattleViktor Drachev/AFP/Getty Images
Some of the Belorussian, a Ukrainian people around the exclusion zone, choose to ignore the ban on people in the area –– especially older generations that fear the nuclear fallout less. Many farmers let their cattle graze land in the exclusion zone, which means they are consistently tested for radiation levels.
Radioactive KittiesViktor Drachev/AFP/Getty Images
An elderly woman who lives in the officially abandoned village of Rudnoye feeds cats near her home close to the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. Cats didn't survive the initial radiation of the disaster in 1986, but feral cat populations have been moving back in and steadily building back up since there's plenty of radioactive little critters to snack on there.
Stray DogsSergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images
Stray dogs play in front of the abandoned Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Like feral cats, formerly domestic dogs have made a home in the radioactive wasteland.
The top dogs in the disaster zone are the wolves. Scientists predict the population of wolves around Chernobyl has risen to about 300, an impressive return from the brink of being endangered. Yet even at the top of the food chain, the wolves are subjected to radiation exposure that have led to concern about genetic mutation in the wolf population. You can check out an hour-long documentary on the wolves of Chernobyl here.