On October 2, 2014, an automatic camera “caught” a BROWN BEAR in one of the abandoned population centers within the Chornobyl exclusion zone. Who was it? An occasional visitor or returning inhabitant of Ukrainian Polissia?

In the last couple of years the Chornobyl Center in Slavutych is working on a comprehensive description of the areas within the exclusion zone that are of the greatest interest from environmental perspective. The scientists are interested in everything; starting with soils and radiation environment and ending with flora and fauna. Only such kind of actual information may be used to justify conservation of certain areas and select an adequate environmental category. Naturally, the key criteria in the assessment are rare animal and plant species, unique complexes. In case an area hosts the “Red Book” species, they are not accidental, and moreover they continuously live and grow there, then this area has a complete set of conditions meeting their needs. Consequently, these lands should be given a high conservation status.

So far, there are plenty of such objects in a “savings box” of the exploratory achievements: various orchids, old oak and hornbeam forests, highmoors rich in biodiversity, rare bird species (hazel grouse, black grouse, greater spotted eagle, white-tailed eagle, owl, great gray owl, gray crane, black stork and others), extremely rare bat species (giant noctule, Barbastella, pond bat), lynx, otter, blue hare, and many other vertebrate and invertebrate animals.

There is also a set of so-called “phantom types” among the entire ensemble of unique creatures. They may be theoretically present within the Chornobyl exclusion zone, since we periodically meet their direct or indirect evidence. What is missing is a direct record of species by scientists followed by a finding description. BROWN BEAR for a long time was regarded as such a species.

Long ago it was a customary inhabitant of not only southern Polissia, but also of the whole forest-steppe zone. A top-echelon predator in the food hierarchy and at the same time absolutely omnivorous, in most cases herbivorous like a cow. It found everything it needed for life in dense forests of Polissia. However, a man has always pursued it, and even more damage occurred due to merciless deforestation. By the beginning of the 20th century, only 13% of land was covered with forests in what is now called the exclusion zone. The animal, which needs forest as its table and home, disappeared for a long time. Over the last hundred of years, only rare reports indicated that lone bears occasionally wandered in Sumy or Zhytomyr Regions. Main habitat of this species is hundreds of kilometers to the north. Belarusian scientists state that in recent decades bear was ordinary though not very numerous species in the north of Belarus, predominantly in Vitebsk Region. Recently, only 20 years ago, bear was let out to the Bryansk forests in order to restore once-lost native habitats of bears.

The first data on meeting the taliped within the exclusion zone appeared in the 90s of the previous century. Rumors said bear was got by poachers. The first real traces of bear within the Chornobyl zone were noted in 2003 by S.P. Gashchak and I.V. Chizhevskiy, the Chornobyl Center’s scientists, near Korogod village. But their attempt to publish a feature in scientific journal encountered a complete rejection from academic zoologists, who excluded the idea of bear returning to the region. Since then, traces of bear were found a few more times, and that was about it.

A significant breakthrough in understanding of the species status occurred in 2008, when Belarusian colleagues for the first time published the data on recording a bear in the neighboring Polesie Radiation and Ecology Reserve (Belarus). Actually, the Chornobyl exclusion zone in Ukraine and this reserve make up an integrated natural complex. The animal was noticed there for the first time in the 90s; and during 2003-2007 there were 20 such cases. Moreover, the Belarusians state that initially bear was mainly recorded in the south of the reserve, i. e. adjacent to the Ukrainian exclusion zone. At a rough estimate, five animal units of different age and sex have been recorded there. Naturally, the same animals could at least easily enter the Ukrainian territory. Though, Chornobyl zone is still ‘terra incognita’ due to lack of organizations professionally engaged in studies and conservation of wildlife.

In the absence of funds and people, use of automatic cameras, i.e. “camera traps”, was the only way to expand the biodiversity assessment opportunities. The cameras impartially fix everything that moves at a distance of 10-15 m. The first few cameras were, at his own expense, purchased by S.P. Gashchak, a major participant of the investigations, and placed on the research sites. Since the spring of 2012, the cameras have been installed already in dozens of points at four large sites and have collected plenty of valuable information. Naturally, bear was tempting, but an almost unattainable dream. Several animals on 200,000 hectares of Ukrainian lands, in the same area of Belarusian lands, and only 5-6 cameras! The detection probability was very low. And yet it happened! In early October 2014, after four months of continuous shooting in one and the same point, a camera has finally caught the taliped. It happened at night, in one of the abandoned population centers in the west of the exclusion zone. Judging from its size, it was an adult animal and presumably male. It’s difficult to say wherefrom and whereto it was going. However, in this very area of the exclusion zone huge forests begin, genuine “bear corners”, where it could find a wintering ground.

It so happened that in a month after this occasion, researches of the Chornobyl Center jointly with their colleagues from the Ecology and Hydrology Centre and from the University of Salford (UK) started the studies to assess diversity and population density of large mammal species in the areas with different radiation and ecological conditions. The convincing results previously obtained by the Chornobyl Center formed a basis for the pattern developed: dozens of photo traps will simultaneously operate in several areas of the zone over a year. This powerful tool cannot but bring extremely valuable information. And surely the bear will repeatedly appear in the pictures!

Sergii P. Gashchak,

Deputy Director for Science of the Chornobyl Center International Radioecological Laboratory