The Viridian Design Movement

Viridian Note 00403: Przwalski Chernobyl

Key concepts
involuntary parks, Chernobyl, endangered Przwalski horses, Mary Mycio
Attention Conservation Notice:
It's about rare ancestral horses now thriving around Chernobyl.


SXSW Interactive in Austin, and we'll throw the doors open for a party here at the Viridian Vatican. Night of March 16. Free beer. Need directions? Email me.

The concept of the Viridian "involuntary park" is a persistent one. Involuntary parks are not natural parks, but places so devastated by human misuse that people can't live there any more.

As we Viridians have pointed out on a number of occasions, the world is becoming uninsurable. This means more abandoned areas and many more involuntary parks in future.

Disaster tourists do tour Chernobyl, and might even weblog the experience.

Among the wilder developments in this Rhode Island-sized Chernobyl "zone of alienation" was the deliberate release of primordial "Przewalski horses." These ancient horses are now running wild across the radioactive wasteland. The Przewalski home page:

Mary Mycio, who works in the Ukraine, is writing a book about Chernobyl which contemplates the topic of involuntary parks. Mary Mycio (myciomar* remarks:

"A total of 21 horses were released a few years ago. Today, there are 65. I saw one of the herds in December and it's doing very well. One hundred percent of the mature mares foaled.

"The Chernobyl zone on the Ukrainian side is highly regulated. About 5,000 people work in zone management and another 5,000 or so work at the decommissioned power plant. But they are largely concentrated at the plant and the town of Chernobyl 11 miles away. The rest of the territory is largely uninhabited, though it is also managed, especially for fire safety. The Belarus part of the zone is more like a park, and far less regulated."

Mary Mycio has also been kind enough to share with us an article she wrote in 2002, for the Los Angeles Times, about her own encounter with Chernobyl and its ever-more-flourishing wildlife.

"Visitors can see rare horses and breathe surprisingly fresh air in a strange twist on adventure tourism at the site of reactor disaster."


= Yuri Zayets pointed his binoculars toward a distant copse of birches and shouted excitedly from midway up the fire tower: 'They're over there, grazing near the forest.'

"It had taken nearly two hours of driving through the unique radioactive wilderness born of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster to find them, but one of the world's few wild herds of rare Przewalski horses finally came into view.

"'Stay here,' Denis Vishnevsky, a zoologist with the Chernobyl Ecology Center, said after the group of official guides and a journalist piled out of their minibus to see the short but powerfully robust horses, introduced here in 1998 to eat what was supposedly 'excess' vegetation in the depopulated area. 'They'll come to us.'

"'Chernobyl safaris,' mused Rima Kiselytsia, a guide with Chernobylinterinform, the agency that shepherds all visitors to the 'Zone of Alienation' around the now-decommissioned reactor, an area that once was home to 135,000 people. 'It's a strange idea, but I like it.'

"Chernobyl tourism has been a hot topic in Ukraine since January, when a U.N. report urged Chernobyl communities to learn to live safely with radiation – such as consuming only produce grown outside the zone. The report suggested specialized tourism as one of several possible ways to bring money into a region that has swallowed more than $100 billion in subsidies from Soviet, Ukrainian and international government funds since the nuclear accident 16 years ago.

"Back in the town of Chernobyl, where the zone's administration manages the Rhode Island-sized no man's land around the destroyed reactor, one official said economic benefits of tourism will never be more than minor. But he doesn't reject the idea outright.

"'The U.N. is 12 years too late,' said Mykola Dmytruk, deputy director of Chernobylinterinform, referring to technicians who have been coming to the zone for that long. 'We've been allowing tours since 1994.'

"A few Kiev tourist agencies advertise Chernobyl excursions on their Web sites, but so far the zone administration doesn't actively promote the idea. 'A great deal still isn't known,' said Dmytruk, ' and we warn everyone about the risks, even scientists.'

"The risks, while small, are real. And so is the desolation. But the aftermath of the accident has created a misleading stereotype of the zone as a toxic wasteland, a nuclear desert devoid of life, and certainly not a place a sane person would want to visit. In fact, by ending industrialization, deforestation, cultivation and other human intrusions, radiation has transformed the zone into one of Europe's largest wildlife habitats, a fascinating and at times beautiful wildness teeming with large animals such as moose, wolves, boar and deer.

"It now is home to 270 bird species, 31 of them endangered – making the zone one of the few places in Europe to spot rarities such as black storks and booted eagles. And traveling to Chernobyl may qualify as a kind of adventure tourism. The very knowledge of the buzzing background of radiation imbues even the prosaic act of walking down the street with an aura of excitement. It isn't the same adrenalin punch as bungee jumping in the Andes, but it is a palpable sensation – like being surrounded by ghosts.

"By law, no one can enter the zone without permission. But except for children under 17, the administration may give permission to pretty much anyone. The vast majority of the nearly 1,000 annual visitors are scientists, journalists, politicians and international nuclear officials, but the zone has hosted a handful of what Dmytruk calls 'pure' tourists – including three Japanese in 2000 – and it can put together customized programs, such as safaris in search of Przewalski horses, which some experts believe are the ancestors of all domestic horses but are far more aggressive than their domestic counterparts.

"'If a group of Californians want to go bird- watching, we can organize that,' Dmytruk said, adding, 'so long as they know the difference between plutonium and potatoes.' Of course, Chernobyl isn't Club Med. But more than 15 years after the fourth reactor block spewed radiation around the globe, the risks are mostly manageable. About a quarter of the cesium and strontium have already decayed, and 95% of the remaining radioactive molecules are no longer in fallout that can get on or inside a visitor, but have sunk to a depth of about five inches in the soil.

"From there, they have insinuated themselves into the food chain, making the zone's diverse and abundant flora and fauna radioactive indeed. An antler shed recently by one Chernobyl elk was stuffed with so much strontium that it cannot be allowed out of the zone. But three Przewalski foals born in the wild, while radioactive, have grown to adolescence with no visible effects. Such radioactivity now has receded to the background. On an average day, a visitor might receive an extra radiation dose about equivalent to taking a two-hour plane trip, zone officials say. That is, if the visitor follows the strict but simple safety rules: 'Don't eat local food, stay on the pavement, and go only where your guide takes you,' Dmytruk said.

"It is almost impossible to smell fresher air in an urban setting than here in the town of Chernobyl, where the number of cars seen on a warm April day could be counted on one hand and songbirds frequently provide the only sound.

"'It is one of the zone's many paradoxes, but because human activity is banned nearly everywhere, the region is one of Ukraine's environmentally cleanest,' Dmytruk said. 'Except for radiation.'

"Today, villages are slowly succumbing to encroaching forests. In the abandoned town of Pripyat, less than two miles from the nuclear reactor, empty black windows stare blindly from high-rise buildings at kindergartens littered with heartbreakingly small gas masks. It may seem like an odd place for a rewarding tourism experience. But nowhere else can a visitor stand amid a herd of wild Przewalski horses like a character in Jean Auel's Ice Age novels, or watch a pair of rare white-tailed eagles circling above the ghostly high-rises of Pripyat, a moving monument to the devastating effects of technology gone awry, and nature's near miraculous resilience and recovery."

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