Wolves have it tough. They’re despised by shepherds and ranchers, fairy-tale readers and werewolf believers – making humans their only true natural enemy. While tales of their attacks on humans and livestock have long been vastly overestimated and are often outright lies, they continue to be treated as vicious predators. Now, another manmade problem is putting wolves in danger again. At least one of the wolves that have survived and thrived in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (CEZ) surrounding the site of the 1986 nuclear power plant disaster has been tracked outside of this 4,300 square kilometers (1,660 square miles) relatively human-free area. And you know what that means …
“The dispersal of a young wolf is an important observation because it suggests that the CEZ may serve as a source for some wildlife populations outside of the CEZ, and raises questions about the potential spread of radiation-induced genetic mutations to populations in uncontaminated areas.”
Add “fear of mutant radioactive wolves” to the general fear of wolves and change “raises questions” to “terrifies locals to shoot to kill” and you have a general idea of what’s bound to happen as a result of a new study in the European Journal of Wildlife Research which found that the concentration of wolves in the CEZ is seven times that of the surrounding areas and one of the animals they had fitted with a GPS collar was located 186 miles (300km) outside of the zone.
"We have no evidence to support that this is happening. It is an interesting area of future research, but it is not something I would worry about."
Study lead author Michael Byrne, a wildlife ecologist at the University of Missouri at Columbia, knows what you’re thing and says in an interview with Live Science that “no wolves there were glowing – they all have four legs, two eyes and one tail."
In fact, despite the radiation leakage and because of the lack of humans for 30 years, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is actually overloaded with well-fed, healthy animals of all species – so many that it’s only natural a young wolf would look for food in a less crowded locale. Should locals be more fearful of coming in contact with a lost wolf, a radioactive wolf, neither or both?
Unfortunately, due to fears, restrictions and politics, no one really knows for sure. Researchers say that the most genetic damage was done immediately after the disaster and those animals may have quickly died off. There are some signs of problems from eating contaminated foods – voles that eat contaminated mushrooms have a high rate of cataracts. This hasn't stopped poachers from hunting and undoubtedly eating animals from around the edges of the zone with no reported aftereffects ... yet. It also hasn’t stopped tourists from spending time in the zone and around the animals now that visiting is permitted.
Will the fact that tourists see that the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone has turned into a thriving wildlife habitat lessen the fears of wolves venturing out of the area? Probably not. Will any lessons be learned from this? Highly unlikely. If (or when) a worldwide nuclear disaster finally occurs, which will ultimately survive … humans or wolves?
You know the answer.