More than three decades have passed since the terrible tragedy at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
For reference: The exclusion zone established in 1986 after the population was evacuated from a 30 km zone around the station is a territory prohibited for free access, which was heavily contaminated with long-lived radionuclides as a result of the Chernobyl accident.
The Chernobyl Radiation-Biosphere Reserve has been operating in the zone since April 2016. Now, scientists are actively exploring how radiation has changed the local nature, but so far only one thing can be said with certainty: firstly, Chernobyl is saturated with wild animals, and secondly, trees sprouted even in places where asphalt was before.
Forests are complex dynamic natural systems, the boundaries of which are constantly changing. Taking into account the high complexity of obtaining information on the composition of forests and their ecological status by land-based methods, especially on large areas of the exclusion zone, an important role in assessing the state of forests, their mapping and environmental monitoring of the Chernobyl flora and fauna as a whole belongs to remote research methods.
Modern technology is relevant
The species composition of plants and animals in the Chernobyl zone is determined by means of classification of multispectral satellite images using modern software. At the same time, it is possible to significantly clarify the spatial distribution of forests and animals by species composition.
The most important reason for the modern prosperity of wildlife in the exclusion zone was the absence of man.
According to the results of multi-year research, only vertebrates can be about 411 species in the Chernobyl zone, despite the fact that 303 species have been already known to scientists, including 57 red books, the presence of 17 of which has already been established. The density of many is quite high and corresponds to the ecological capacity of the land.
However, field observation was and remains a difficult matter due to the forest cover of the territory and its large size. Scientists still gain knowledge about the animals of the zone mainly due to random encounters or indirect signs of stay such as tracks, burrows, etc.
In this regard, photographing animals with hidden cameras is an excellent means of research, especially since modern technology allows you to do this automatically, without human intervention.
To see, analyze and not interfere – life in the camera lens
The Chernobyl Center for Nuclear Safety, Radioactive Waste and Radioecology, with organizational and technical support from Texas Tech University (USA) and, in particular, Dr. Robert J. Baker, carried out a series of works on automatic photographing of wild animals of the Chernobyl zone.
The basic principle in this matter was the search for a suitable place where theoretically animals could appear quite often. In addition, such a place should provide favorable exposure conditions and the camera is protected from the sun and precipitation.
It was possible to find the most optimal conditions for automatic photography by placing cameras near places of natural concentration of animal movements – dams and bridges on land reclamation systems, paths along coasts or steep slopes.
430 frames were shot. Not all frames were of satisfactory quality, some of them were damaged due to overheating of the camera in the sun, fluctuations in vegetation, fogging of glass, and superposition of the sun. In some places, several films were shot, in others – only a few frames.
Placing the camera on bridges through reclamation canals has given the best result, but it was worse near forest roads and trails. When installing the camera near a residential hole, the same view, for example a badger, often got into the frame. In total, 14 species of mammals, 4 species of birds, as well as people and vehicles fell under the lenses of Texas scientists.
According to the survey results, wild boars are the most common large creatures of the Chernobyl zone. The second most frequent animal was the elk. Although it is inferior to wild boar in percentage terms both in quantity and frequency of appearance per day, in any case it is much more than other large animals.
The group of the most frequently encountered, along with wild boar and elk, should include a species of Ussuri raccoon. It was shot in almost all areas, and for the frequency of shooting it is not much inferior to wild boar and elk.
But it should be noted that this could also be a consequence of the particular placement of the camera: in almost all cases, somewhere nearby was water – a canal, a swamp, a lake. The next group includes the wolf and the fox. They were filmed in almost all areas, but in less quantity compared to the previous group. However, the same frequency of their shooting does not indicate their equal numbers.
Other species of animals do not often get caught in the field of view of the camera. The reasons for this are not always obvious. If a deer, otter, beaver, badger or Przhevalsky’s horse has a low total number and often live in limited areas, then why so few hares and hedgehogs were shot with the camera is not clear.
Since it was possible in most cases to determine the time of day when the animal was photographed, this makes it possible to analyze their daily activity. Hedgehog, hare, beaver, ferret, badger, otter, deer prefer night activity, while the fox and Przhevalsky’s horse, on the contrary, are mostly shot during daylight hours. Elk, wild boar, wolf and raccoon give preference to night hours, although they often appeared during the day.
Placing the camera in the “badger town” showed that animals appear on the surface about 1.5-2 hours after sunset, although they often return after the sun rises.
So, automatic photography of wild animals in the Chernobyl zone is a very useful research method. The animal world remains almost unexplored with a total area of more than 2000 square kilometres, only land, part of which is covered with forest or shrubbery, and in the absence of an active specialized scientific institution.
The installation of automatic cameras at the most remote and hidden points gives a lot of interesting information, although it does not deny the need for direct observations.
Cameras do not bother animals and work even at night when most mammals are quite active. With their help, it becomes possible to obtain certain valuable information even about very cautious species.
The Chernobyl zone was and will remain a zone closed to public access. That is why, interest in it is growing. It is possible to satisfy this interest with various projects and virtual tours complemented by reality. This is greatly helped by the development of modern gadgets.
A lot of modern shooting with the help of drones has appeared. They create the effect of full presence – you can look into the past and with a sinking heart compare it with the present. Today, the future of the exclusion zone is obvious – it will gradually be turned into a testing ground for unique scientific research, solar energy production and nuclear waste storage. In addition, the Zone remains one of the most promising places in Ukraine in terms of tourism. But this is until interest in its fades away …