Wolves and giant catfish: the wildlife of Chernobyl

I had wanted to visit the Chernobyl exclusion zone for a number of years, partly because it cried out to the dark tourist in me and partly because it has effectively become a 1000 square mile, accidental nature reserve. Wildlife in the exclusion zone includes wolves, bears, bison, beavers, wild boar, moose and the endangered Przewalski’s horse. The internet also abounds with stories of mutated, radioactive animals that grow to gigantic proportions but suspecting that this was just a load of hype I decided to go and see for myself.

TV fisherman, Jeremy Wade filmed an episode for Animal Planet’s River Monsters in Chernobyl, where he went fishing in the cooling ponds that would have served the nuclear power station. In the characteristic tone of his series, there was lots of dramatic editing and ominous voice overs, telling us about huge, radioactive catfish that prowl the waters in the exclusion zone. Jeremy manages to bag himself a rather mediocre wels catfish (Silurus glanis) that we are told is sixteen times more radioactive than normal. Now, this sounds a lot and it sounds dangerous but it actually seems that this level of radiation is not negatively affecting the catfish in Chernobyl. I wouldn’t recommend eating one though.

Wels catfish (Silurus glanis). Photo credit: Dieter Florian

Just outside the infamous reactor number four there is a cooling pond where you can see some pretty big catfish. In fact they have become something of a tourist attraction for people who visit the exclusion zone. The catfish appear healthy, they are breeding and they fall within the normal size range for their species – which for wels catfish is huge. Radioactive or not, the wels catfish can reach lengths of a couple of meters and weigh a 100kg or more. It is native to central, southern and eastern Europe where it has been reported to have attacked swimmers, although documented accounts are difficult to verify. So, contrary to popular belief, the catfish at Chernobyl are not gigantic because of the radioactive fallout. It just happens that more of them are reaching their normal maximum size due to a lack of fishing and predation. They are an impressive sight and because they have become accustomed to being fed by tourists you can get a good look at them in Chernobyl. Seeing them has to be one of the most bizarre wildlife watching experiences I’ve ever had. As I leant over an old bridge, only meters away from the epicentre of the disaster, they gracefully swam about below me; their massive shadowy forms reminiscent of sharks.

A large wels catfish (Silurus glanis) in one of the cooling ponds in the Chernobyl exclusion zone.

Back in Kiev I met up with urban explorer, Vlad, who has, on several occasions illegally sneaked into the exclusion zone and camped there. Current rules only allow licensed tour operators to enter the zone and when visiting you have to have your passport checked and get tested for radiation at the 30km and 10km checkpoints. The radiation detectors are the most Soviet looking things I’ve ever seen and I’m not convinced that they actually work.

The most soviet-looking radiation detector in existence

Vlad however, prefers to enter the zone without a guide and sleeps in abandoned buildings by day; moving only at night to avoid guard patrols. He tells me that on one such night he and a friend were walking down an abandoned road near to the infamous Red Forest when a large pack of wolves appeared about ten metres in front of them. Despite their fierce reputation it is very rare for wolves to attack people, but they are formidable predators and attacks have happened. Vlad explained that the wolves stopped and stared at them for a long time. They didn’t show any aggression but they refused to move on. It’s likely that the wolves were just curious at seeing two humans walking around the area at night but Vlad didn’t want to take any chances. He had some firecrackers in his bag and set them off, sending the wolves running back into the forest. Nothing seems to phase Vlad but he said that facing a pack of wolves in the middle of the night was a very unnerving experience.

Despite their fierce reputation, wolves (Canis lupus) rarely attack humans. Photo credit: Taral Jansen

Whilst the tour I was on didn’t allow us any time to properly seek out the wildlife of Chernobyl, it is an amazing experience to wander through an abandoned city that has been reclaimed by nature. Where the once modern city of Pripyat stood, trees and shrubs now burst through main roads and birds flit in and out of windowless tower blocks. Lizards scuttle around the crumbling fair ground and the abandoned swimming pool is about to succumb to the encroaching forest. The tragedy that befell Chernobyl is undoubtedly one of the worst disasters in modern history but it also serves as an example of how, if left alone, nature can recover.

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