Scientists say it’s the first direct evidence of natural rewilding since the catastrophic 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
From Australia to the Amazon, it’s hard to find a hopeful story about wildlife and species survival right now. Fortunately, scientists who study the aftermath of the March 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident in Japan say they’re seeing signs of rewilding and recovery in the exclusion zone.
The nuclear power facility operated by TEPCO was damaged following the Great Tōhoku earthquake, a 9.1-magnitude undersea catastrophe that caused a massive tsunami and claimed more than 18,000 lives. It also doomed the nuclear power facility and required humans to leave for nearly a decade now.
Researchers from the Institute of Environmental Radioactivity at Fukushima University, working with the Beasley Wildlife Lab at the University of Georgia, wanted to investigate the return of animals to the abandoned zone. There is much previous evidence on how wildlife repopulated the abandoned land surrounding the Chernobyl site in Ukraine after its 1986 nuclear incident, so it was likely in Japan too.
The researchers were right. They set up remote cameras across wildlife trails and in different habitats, as well as in the abandoned communities left behind. The results, published in the Journal of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, are based on a collection of more than 267,000 photos of wildlife in the zone.
The scientists found 20 species, including pheasant, fox, wild boar, and energetic macaque monkeys. They also found raccoon dogs, which are related to fox, along with Japanese hare, snakes and more.
“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,” said wildlife biologist James Beasley of the University of Georgia.
The project was designed to measure the wildlife activity in three different categories: places that were no-go zones for people, places where they are restricted because of intermediate contamination levels, and places where people were allowed to return – at least on a limited basis – because of lower radiation. They mirrored the zones that were originally created by the Japanese government.
The 106 cameras were set up for four months. They recorded Japanese marten, an animal similar to the sable that helps disperse seeds throughout an ecosystem. They saw Japanese serow, a goat-like antelope that lives in the forests and is protected in Japanese conservation areas. They found masked palm civets, with their raccoon-like markings and their skunk-like spray scent, and spied sika deer and black bear and red fox.
The animals are behaving as they often did, with few exceptions. Wild boar were more active during the day than they normally are when in the human-free zones, likely because there are no people to avoid. The serow that normally avoid people live closer to them, but that may be so they can distance themselves from the exploding boar populations in the uninhabited zones.
Most of all, the researchers found evidence that the animal populations are thriving. Though the scientists are quick to note their study does not look at individual animal health or cell-level impacts of radiation exposure, the results are a promising sign of natural rewilding after Fukushima’s devastation.