5 Places Abandoned by People But Not Wildlife

#EcoList of Things We Love

We humans leave a place for different reasons. Sometimes we’ve polluted it so completely that it’ll poison us if we stay. Sometimes we’ve consumed all the resources we valued in it. Sometimes we turn it into an uninhabitable war zone by studding it with land mines and surrounding it with artillery.

When we abandon a place, very often the wild comes to reclaim it. Untamed grasses and flowers overtake lawns and driveways. The forest re-establishes its sovereignty, the swamp bubbles back up, and the animals return. Here are five places abandoned by people — but not by wildlife.

1. Chernobyl

Classroom in the ghost town of Pripyat, located near the former Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Photographed in 2008 by Henrik Ismarker/Flickr.

On April 26, 1986, a reactor in the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine exploded, releasing a monstrous plume of radioactive fallout that drifted over the Soviet Union and Europe. The event had devastating effects on people, bringing death, cancer and birth defects. An estimated 300,000 residents were evacuated from the region, never to return.

In the absence of humans and heavy industry, the area has been repopulated by boars, moose, deer, wolves and even rare Eurasian lynx, which have disappeared from most of the rest of Europe and Russia due to human activity and habitat loss. We don’t know exactly how radiation is affecting the wildlife, but we know that in terms of numbers and species diversity, animals are thriving. Thirty years after the disaster, Chernobyl is a wildlife refuge. Watch our video of radioactive lynx on Facebook or YouTube.

2. Kolmanskop, Namibia

Ghost town of Kolmanskop, photographed in 2006 by Damien du Toit/Flickr.

In 1908 a diamond was discovered in the desert in southern Namibia. German miners descended on the area and established the town of Kolmanskop, which they modeled after the towns of their homeland. After World War II the diamond field yielded less and less, and it was finally abandoned in 1954. Kolmanskop became a ghost town, and the desert sands slowly sifted into the abandoned buildings, filling the rooms.

But life persists in the dry desert around the empty mine and town — a population of about 150 wild horses lives there. Horses aren’t native to the region, and no one knows exactly how these horses got there. One theory is that their precursors were brought to Namibia in World War I by German military. These horses have survived for generations and are adapted to the dry climate, requiring much less water than other horses.

3. Korean Demilitarized Zone

Korean DMZ courtesy Korea.net/Wikimedia.

Established in 1953, the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is a strip of land about two miles wide that separates North and South Korea. It’s heavily fortified on both sides by fences, guard towers, tanks, long-range artillery, land mines and military personnel. Few people are allowed to enter the DMZ, and as a result it’s become an unofficial nature reserve. It’s a refuge for two of the planet’s most endangered birds — white-naped and red-crowned cranes — as well as Asiatic black bears, Amur leopards and, according to some accounts, extremely rare Korean tigers. Watch our video featuring footage of the DMZ’s wildlife by videographer Wanho Lim on Facebook or YouTube.

4. Centralia, Pennsylvania

Centralia, Pa., by properpictures/Flickr.

In 1962 in Centralia, Pa., a seam of anthracite coal caught fire. It’s been burning ever since — for more than 50 years —and it’s the worst mine fire in the United States. Over the decades residents of Centralia were driven away by toxic gas and sinkholes caused by the fire. Finally the state condemned the town, bought out the remaining property owners, and even revoked Centralia’s zip code.

Smoke and steam still emerge from a few places in the ground in Centralia. Its subterranean fire will burn for another century or two, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. But the fire doesn’t dissuade wildlife: Centralia’s sidewalks and yards have been overtaken by new-growth forest, fields of wildflowers, butterflies and bees.

5. Okunoshima, Japan

Rabbits at Okunoshima by Kim Bui/Flickr.

Okunoshima is a tiny island in the Inland Sea of Japan that used to be home to a few fishing families. Then, in the 1920s, the Japanese army established a secret chemical-weapons program there. A plant for manufacturing chemicals for mustard and tear gas was built, and an existing fish-preservation processor was repurposed into a toxic gas reactor. At the end of World War II, the program was shut down.

Okunoshima was then designated as vacation spot… and also mysteriously became home to hundreds of adorable feral rabbits. As soon as human visitors step off the shuttle bus, these friendly bunnies descend, demanding snacks. Okunoshima now hosts more than 100,000 visitors a year, who come to play on the beaches and tennis courts, visit the Poison Gas Museum and ponder the horrors of warfare, and hang out with hundreds of cute rabbits. A fishing village that was turned into a poison cauldron and then became a bunny haven — the story of Okunoshima tells us that sometimes a place heals itself in a way that seems almost magical.

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