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?
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
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*irex.kiev.ua) 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."
"By MARY MYCIO, SPECIAL TO THE TIMES
May 11, 2002
- "CHERNOBYL, Ukraine
- = 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
"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
"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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AND TO THINK IT ONLY
COST A HUNDRED BILLION
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