The Human Effect on Wildlife – Emily Barrett

In the tragic aftermath of nuclear destruction, it is hard to find how there could possibly be a positive side. With nuclear accidents occurring back to the mid 1950’s, there have been considerable loss of lives, harmful effects due to radiation, and evacuation of towns surrounding nuclear plants and reactors. In 1986, the most notable nuclear tragedy in history occurred at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in northern Kiev, Ukraine. The devastation of the explosion killed thirty people within just three months from acute radiation poisoning and would go on to affect thousands with either cancer or bodily malformations (World Nuclear Association).

Chernobyl after the explosion in 1986.

Chernobyl after the explosion in 1986.

Since Chernobyl and surrounding cities were evacuated after the explosion, humans have not inhabited the “exclusion zone” for nearly thirty years. In those thirty years, plant and animal life have begun to thrive in a location where humans have been removed from the equation. Coincidence? Jim Smith, an earth and environmental sciences professor at the University of Portsmouth, would argue that “human habitation and development of the land are worse for wildlife” than nuclear destruction and radiation (Wendel).

Throughout history, humans have been one of the main destructors of animal and plant habitats. The Native American inhabitants of North America had a greater respect for the land and plant and animal life prior to the arrival of the Europeans. For example, though they did hunt the bison, they only hunted enough to survive and used every part of the animal. However, the Europeans would kill bison simply for their fur or horns to sell. When the Europeans arrived, commodities and the creation of those materials (i.e. the cutting down of trees for timber, the man made alterations to waterways, etc.) affected animal habitats and led to a decline in number for many animals ranging from beavers to deer. The alteration of waterways depleted certain species of fish because they could not longer pass dams but yet could not survive in such large numbers in a small area (Steinberg, 16, 126).

Pollution is also one of the main destructions to wildlife habitats. And wherever there are humans, there is bound to be a great deal of pollution. In his book Down to Earth, historian Ted Steinberg explains the history and environmental impacts of leaded gasoline. Though important to automobile production, lead does not breakdown over time like other radioactive waste. Because of this, the lead that has polluted the environment remains in the land, water, and air (Steinberg 206-208). Little known to most people, lead poisoning also has the same effects on animals as it does on humans (Merck Veterinary Manual).


European Lynx.

European Lynx.

Wildlife that has not inhabited the area of Chernobyl for centuries has begun to flourish in the wake of the nuclear disaster, specifically the European lynx and brown bear. Even an endangered species, the European bison, has found his home in the exclusion zone. This is no freak accident. There are other cases in which a lack of human presence has lead to an increase in wildlife population and plant life, one of which being the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.

The zone, which separates the two enemy countries, is made up largely of land mines, bunkers, and military men, but off limits to civilians. Because of this fact, many rare species have made it their home. For example, the Asiatic black bear, Amur goral, and spotted seal inhabit the environments land and marine habitat. The continuous tension between the two nations means the it could remain a haven for wildlife for a long time, however, a fear still remains that if Korea were to unite once more, what would happen to that wildlife? (Brady)

Map of North and South Korea. The line between the two represents the Demilitarized Zone.

Map of North and South Korea. The line between the two represents the Demilitarized Zone.

It cannot be claimed that humans do not have a great impact on plant and animal life with these examples (and many more, I might add) in mind. From the European arrival to present day, humans are the greatest threat to wildlife habitats globally. Steinberg and Fiege have pointed out the many ways in which man has affected the environment, but here is a great example of the way the absence of man also affects the environment. Which one is more positive?



For more information, see:

Wendel, John. “Chernobyl and Other Places Where Animals Thrive Without People.” National Geographic. National Geographic Society, n.d. Web. 20 Oct. 2015. (Online) Link:

Davis, Jay. “Chapter 11: Wildlife and Pollution.” Wildlife and Pollution. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Oct. 2015. (Online) Link:

Brady, Lisa. “How Wildlife Is Thriving in the Korean Peninsula’s Demilitarized Zone.” The Guardian. N.p., 13 Apr. 2012. Web. Oct.-Nov. 2015. (Online) Link:

National Geographic Chernobyl Incident

Merck Veterinary Manual

World Nuclear Association


4 thoughts on “The Human Effect on Wildlife – Emily Barrett

  1. earthhist Post author

    This is a very thought-provoking post! Most people wouldn’t think that nuclear disasters could in any way be positive. You compared the positives and the negatives while making the reader question if human actions were actually worse for some natural life than a nuclear disaster.

    You gave really good information on the history of the disaster and the current situation with the thriving species. You also connected this topic to Steinberg and class very well. Overall, really great post!

    1. awshue

      Emily this is a very interesting post. I had always been under the assumption that all life surrounding the Chernobyl area had been killed off or suffered horrific biological issues because of radiation but its good to know that this is not the case. I think it’s cool that you also tied in North/South Korea and the animals that have flourished between the two borders. I had no idea that was the case.

  2. Matt Sargent

    This really puts things in perspective on how much we as humans actually do affect the environment, huh? It’s scary to think that where humans have caused so much destruction, animals have been able to find a great place to live. This makes me think that more land should be left untouched by humans and open to animals to let them live.

  3. Sarah Bartlett

    Hi Emily, I really enjoyed reading your article since it was something positive in the news for a change! I was really surprised to read that after the horrific events of Chernobyl plant and animal life began to thrive. It is shocking that the professor you quoted argues that human habitation and development of the land are worse for wildlife than nuclear destruction and radiation. I would have never guessed that, but I am really happy to hear that species that have been struggling could find a home there. It makes you realize how important it is to have reserves and protected land in the world that nature can thrive on its own in. I hope that this area can continue to be a place for just the animals and humans do not slowly begin to work their way back.


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