Hannes Richter

Radioactive Wolves

Hannes Richter

Wolves and other animals now inhabit the abandoned zone of radioactivity near the Chernobyl reactor

When the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant reactor exploded on April 26, 1986, around 340,000 people had to leave the radioactively contaminated exclusion zone that stretched from Ukraine to Belarus and Russia. In the absence of the human species a new, diverse eco-system could develop. In his movie Radioactive Wolves, Austrian director Klaus Feichtenberger explores this unusual and astounding wilderness, which is home to a great variety of animals and insects.

The documentary was screened at the Embassy on March 15, 2012 as part of the 20th Washington Environmental Film Festival. In this interview Director Klaus Feichtenberger shares his experience in making this movie and tells us about this unique phenomenon.

Did you have an interest in documentary films from an early age or did it develop later in life?

Film-making as such came rather late in my life, and quite accidentally. I was asked by a friend to help write a movie script for a competition. Surprisingly, the script won. Once it was completed, the movie was nominated in a major festival – the rest, some 20 years of documentary film-making, followed naturally.

When did you first learn about the thriving ecosystem in this area?

In 2003 when I was doing research work for the BBC series “Europe – a Natural History”. I wanted to include the Chernobyl situation in the series, but unfortunately the BBC was not interested in anything east of the former Iron Curtain.

What drew you to this project?

The situation of an eco-system 25 years after humans had abandoned it. Wherever I go, it’s usually the reverse. People are moving in, changing eco-systems. Here was a chance to see a dynamic process of nature re-conquering a fairly vast cultivated area.

How did you prepare for shooting in this exclusion zone? What precautions did you take?

First of all, we gathered all the available information about the situation on-site and its risks. Once you understand that ambient radiation is not a major risk, as long as you limit the time of your presence in the zone (radiation exposure during one week in the zone, is roughly equivalent to that of a single trans-Atlantic flight), you focus on the real danger: incorporating radionuclide.

Avoiding those is basically just amatter of hygiene (keep your hands and especially your fingernails clean, always wear rubber boots, do not touch soil, vegetation or animals with your bare hands, do not eat or drink anything that originates in the zone, do not inhale dust or forest fire smoke etc.) We always carried measuring instruments like dosimeters, radiometers and other equipment with us to warn us of over-exposure or especially dirty spots.

Were you scared at some point that you might have been exposed to the nuclear remains for too long?

The time of exposure to ambient radiation can be controlled easily, but inhaling a plutonium particle, for instance, is a matter of statistics - whatever you can do try to avoid it. The worries about that were always there at the back of my mind.

How long did it take to film this documentary?

100 days were actually spent inside the zone. Research and film shooting spread across a period of roughly 2 years. Postproduction was the standard period of roughly 3 months of editing, writing, track-laying etc. A total of perhaps three months was spent outside the zone for travel, bureaucracy, searching historical archives, technical preparations etc.

What were some of the difficulties that you encountered while making this movie?

Since you can only spend a limited time per day, per month or per year inside the zone to keep radiation exposure to a “safe” maximum, the daily commute from our accommodation outside the zone to shooting locations and back, which also included passing through several checkpoints each day, reduced our efficiency to 50% of what it normally is. Since there are only a few functional roads in the zone, just getting from point A to B was often a challenge. These vast Pripyat swamps (today Pripyat is a ghost town near the Chernobyl reactor) once stopped the army of Genghis Khan, but we were determined to make it.

What was the most fascinating thing that you encountered during the days of shooting?

At first, the safari experience inside the zone when you drive or walk through the landscape and see all those wild animals that are normally invisible, in bright daylight – bison, moose, wolves, wild boar, lynxes, otters, turtles, eagles, and more. For someone from Central Europe, this wild, dynamic Pripyat riverscape with its sprawling spring flood, and bursting of the ice was absolutely amazing. Then there is this feeling of peace and total silence. For a while you hear absolutely nothing and then, suddenly, there is the sound of a crane”s wing-beathalf a mile away, or a single leaf dropping to the ground fifty steps away – that feeling of tranquility can become addictive.

How can these animals survive the radioactive pollution?

Compared to humans, most of these animals have short life-cycles to start with – too short for cancer to kill them before their lives would end anyway. A wolf will hardly live longer than 8 years, maybe ten – anywhere in the world. But that’s only part of the answer. The question of why individuals react differently to long-term low-level radiation for example has not been answered, even after years of research.

How did the animals react to your presence in this area?

Flight distances are much shorter than in populated areas where wildlife is hunted, and reaction times longer. We were never attacked by a bison or a wild boar, although that certainly was a risk. Wolf attacks are extremely rare, but during our work there, two people were attacked (one woman in Ukraine was reportedly bitten) by animals infected with rabies. Bison attacked a forest worker, injured himseverely and killed two horses. Wolves often left fresh tracks very close to us and must have noted us even when we did not see them.

What did you learn about the wolves living in this area?

More than I can relate here. Territorial behavior was very well visible. We were able to reconstruct hunting scenarios from tracks and carcasses. Vocal communication was easy to witness. The complete change of land use during the various seasons was remarkable.

What do you want the audiences to take away with them after seeing this documentary?

I just wanted to show things as they are. But if there is a message in the film then it is one that is only indirectly related to Chernobyl: It is the irony that it takes a nuclear disaster to provide effective wildlife conservation and preserve at least a small wilderness area as a reference standard. That irony really begs the question: Why can this not be achieved without blowing up a reactor? What are your next projects? A documentary about the situation of the world’s rarest, most endangered and perhaps the most beautiful big cat – the Iberian lynx.