Infamous nuclear disaster site transforms into unlikely refuge for animals

January 8, 2020, 3:44 p.m.
The Japanese serow captured on camera in the woods.
Photo: Savannah River Ecology Laboratory/University of Georgia

Whether it's the unforgiving climes of Antarctica or the deepest ocean depths, animals have a way of finding places where humans dare not tread — and making it their home.

You might think they're trying to get away from us — and they probably are.

After all, habitat loss is overwhelmingly the biggest threat facing animals on this Earth.

So it may not come as a surprise to learn that animals are thriving at the site of one of the world's most notorious nuclear disasters: The lands surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan.

A new study, published this week in the Journal of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, reports that more than 20 species — many of them among the country's most vulnerable — are rallying at the site.

For the study, researchers from the University of Georgia used a battery of cameras to capture around 267,000 images of 20 species. Among them? Wild boar, Japanese hares, macaques, pheasant, foxes and raccoon dogs.

It seems Fukushima, which remains uninhabited by humans nearly a decade after a 9.0-magnitude earthquake sparked a meltdown at the facilities, has become a teeming refuge for animals.

"Our results represent the first evidence that numerous species of wildlife are now abundant throughout the Fukushima Evacuation Zone, despite the presence of radiological contamination," James Beasley, a wildlife biologist at the University of Georgia notes in a press release.

A raccon dog photographed in the woods. Raccoon dogs, national icons in Japan, are among many animals flourishing at Fukushima. (Photo: Savannah River Ecology Laboratory/University of Georgia)

In particular, animals that have traditionally come into conflict with humans — like the famously ornery wild boar — are finding space to stretch their legs at Fukushima.

"This suggests these species have increased in abundance following the evacuation of people," Beasley adds.

In all, researchers collected data from 106 cameras over a stretch of 120 days. Not surprising, the cameras placed in areas with the least number of humans, like the Fukushima Exclusion Zone, captured the most images of wildlife.

A wild boar photographed in the woods. Wild boar have found themselves in increasing conflict with humans in recent years. (Photo: Savannah River Ecology Laboratory/University of Georgia)

Overwhelmingly, the most boar, raccoons and Japanese martens were spotted in places where humans are completely excluded. Those areas also happen to have the most radiological activity — although researchers refrained from assessing the health of the animals residing there.

"Based on these analyses, our results show that level of human activity, elevation and habitat type were the primary factors influencing the abundance of the species evaluated, rather than radiation levels," Beasley explains.