The brown bear is a symbol of Chernobyl
The brown bear is a symbol of Chernobyl

The story of the diversity of the natural world of the Exclusion Zone originates at the turn of 1999-2000. Then, twenty years ago, according to Sergey Gashchak, a deputy director for science at the Chernobyl Center for Nuclear Safety, Radioactive Waste and Radioecology, no one could even think that the Zone would someday become the home of a brown bear – an almost extinct species from skyline of Polesie.

Actually, this highest predator disappeared from Polesie in the 19th century, along with the wolverine and the tour. Hundred-year-old pursuit of a brown bear by a man, destruction of forests – the indigenous habitats of this predator, led to a reduction in the species and a shift in the boundaries of its habitat deeper into northern, difficult to access places, sometimes completely impassable for humans. The past twentieth century remembers only isolated cases of a brown bear entering the territory of the modern Polesie region.

Despite the rampant development of the plant world, wildlife, the restoration of the brown bear population in Polesie seemed like science fiction. Scientists, not without reason, believed that “bears do not appear from dampness and mold”, for this a new settlement is needed – reintroduction, when wild animals are again settled with the help of humans in the territory where they previously lived and grew. This was done in particular by Russian scientists in the Bryansk forests.

Then, twenty years ago, the information that the brown bear was used in Chernobyl as an industrial catch was considered by many old-timers as yet another “hunting legend”. Sergey Gashchak and his colleagues lived for a long time and often spent the night in the wilderness of the Zone.

Hovewer, neither in the swamps, nor in the abandoned villages, the evidence that these legends were collected on obvious facts was not found. And one can imagine how crushing “bolt from the blue” were traces of a predator for him back in 2003, photographs of which circled all the zoological magazines of the world then.

Nevertheless, scientists hardly believed these photographs, continuing to assert that this cannot be, because it can never be! It took a long ten years before the brown bear proved to the entire progressive scientific community that it was not a “phantom” species arriving in the Zone, like Mary Poppins was blowing in the wind, but its full owner and lord.

The real breakthrough occurred in 2014, when new technologies were first used in the Zone — automatic photo and video traps in the form of special photo and video cameras. Thanks to this invention of technological progress, the world saw interesting stories, learned a lot of new information about the inhabitants of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, which you could only dream of earlier.

One of the cameras gave everyone a real sensation. The fact that the meadows and forests of the Chernobyl Zone were literally teeming with animals almost thirty years after the Chernobyl accident was a well-known fact. But finally, on a long, cold October night of 2014, a brown bear slowly walked past one of the cameras. It was simply of incredible size – huge, about 110 cm at the withers. And although the camera was not of the best quality, nevertheless, the picture did not leave any doubt – it was a brown bear!

Further, during 2015-2016, another 16 cases of bear registration in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone were presented to the world with the assistance of British scientists from the Center for Hydrology and Ecology of the United Kingdom. Moreover, the pictures were taken only from one place where the camera itself was installed directly – the western side of the Zone. It is not possible yet to cover the entire territory of the Reserve for technical reasons.

What was the reason that this huge beast, which disappeared hundreds of years ago, returned to Polesie again?

Scientists point to several reasons.

The first reason is the decrease, and in some places the complete absence of environmental processes, due to any form of influence of human activity on nature. This anthropogenic process is caused not only by the Chernobyl accident, but also by the socio-economic crisis, which led to the minimization or complete disappearance of the human factor in the vast agricultural and forest regions of Belarus and northern Ukraine in the late 80s and early 90s. This led to the degradation of land and agricultural landscapes, led to the paralysis of land reclamation systems, the extinction of small countrysides and villages bordering forests. The consequence of this is a decrease in activity among lovers of industrial and amateur hunting. Confirmation of this is a large increase in the population of wolves, foxes, wild dogs and beavers.

The second reason. The Chernobyl exclusion zone, which covers almost 5,000 square kilometers of Ukrainian and Belarusian territory, has become a fertile promised land for any population of animals and birds. As you know, all agricultural and forestry activities were stopped here. The zone, in fact, has turned into a protected area soon after the Chernobyl accident. Wildlife was not disturbed by anyone except the animals and birds, as they say, “Stick a stick – it will grow!”

The third reason. Polesie has long been native to a brown bear. Climatic conditions, the availability of wide fodder material, a large choice for arranging the den – all these signs favored the predator. Moreover, with the departure of a person, the territory of the Zone, in addition to the vast territories of deaf shelters, has a large selection of trees twisted with the root system, lush swampy meadows and berry stands, which means an abundance of potential victims for most predators.

You should also not beg the efforts of Belarusian and Russian scientists, who, pursuing the same goal, let tens of cubs into the wildlife – after all, we all accept that the brown bear did not come to Chernobyl from the Carpathian mountains, but most likely from the nearby forests of the Bryansk region.

In the early 90s, talk about a likely population of brown bears appeared both from the Ukrainian and Belarusian parts of the Exclusion Zone. The difference is that with us these conversations were like reassurance – “one granny said.” But among the Belarusian colleagues, they followed the line of scientists, although the latter did not particularly stick out this fact, and, as if being afraid to jinx them, were in no hurry to rush things, talking about attempts to restore the bear population, almost like a state secret.

Belarusian colleagues revealed their maps only twenty years after the Chernobyl accident in 2007, assuring that according to their observations, about five adult brown bears live on the territory of the Polessky Radiation and Ecological Reserve, and there have been documented cases of the presence of mother brown bears and their cubs.

No particular progress has occurred on the part of Ukrainian scientists over the past 10 years. We are just trying to patch up holes with the help of new technologies. More than a hundred photos of traps are deployed throughout the Zone. But they often fail, burn out during natural fires, or they are simply stolen by looters. Nevertheless, the brought positive result of their use leaves hope that a female brown bear with cubs will reach our photo traps in speed.

There are fewer and fewer places where the bear’s paw leaves its mark. The bear is a solitary predator and a tireless tramp. Waking up from hibernation, it runs tens of kilometers in search of food, leaving behind peculiar markers and scratches on the trees. These signs of the presence of brown predators are more and more every year on the territory of the Exclusion Zone.

Nevertheless, it is very early to say for sure that we know exactly how many there are, where they like to live, whether they breed in our area. We can’t even be sure that the individuals captured by the trap are the indigenous inhabitants and not neighbors from the Belarusian forests who came to visit us. Careful and focused research using new technologies is needed. Also, an influx of young creative scientific strength to work under the Development Programs of the Chernobyl Radiation-Ecological Biosphere Reserve will not be out of place.

The Chernobyl zone is a huge and impassable territory. The lack of roads, wetlands, impassable canals, rivers – all this is a natural barrier to any research work. Moreover, it is difficult to look for a “black cat in a dark room” – modern technical equipment, night vision devices are necessary.

Hovewer, each new find is an indescribable joy even with the current modest possibilities. Everyone who is involved in it to one degree or another is happy with it, like a child with a new toy! This is a real huge wild brown bear and it gradually re-develops Kiev Polesie.

Apparently, its population is gradually growing, however paradoxical it may sound. There is expanse for it in the Exclusion Zone, and it feels good here, especially since the conditions for this are most favorable, and no one infringes on its freedom-loving disposition.

It is impossible to believe in the return of the brown bear to Kiev Polesie after almost 200 years of exile. But this is a fait accompli, which serves as a clear illustration of the fact that the main obstacle to the prosperity of wild flora and fauna is Man. As soon as he ceased his activity in a certain territory, species of animals and birds began to appear in the wild, which had not even been dreamed of before.

The terrible disaster in Chernobyl, which happened in 1986, became a circumstance that did not allow a person to conduct further activities in the Polesie region. The Chernobyl accident is a deep and non-healing scar in our history. Nevertheless, the conclusions reached in time allowed us to draw the necessary lessons from this tragedy.

And today, the vast majority of animals living in Polesie are the legacy of the Red Book. Radiation, inspiring fear in a person, has been a reliable protection for them for a long period. But time does not stand still, and today people are gradually trying to get to the “not capitalized” natural resources.

Bears, lynx and elk may be in danger again. Today, almost the only hope for the competence and efficiency of the personnel of the Chernobyl radiation-ecological biosphere reserve is the guarantor of preserving the most valuable wildlife reserve, which are the lands of Kiev Polesie.