As every disaster nerd knows well, a large part of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is now an ecological reserve. While small animals like birds, voles, and insects show a general decrease in density and abundance in highly contaminated areas, the populations of large animals in those same areas have noticeably increased. Teeming with elk, deer, moose, foxes, beaver, owls, and impressively many wolves, the Zone is also home to several herds of endangered megafauna, namely the European bison (native to the area) and the Przewalski horse (not native). These Mogolian horses, equus feruus przewalskii, introduced to the Zone in 1998, are roughly 7,000 km from their ancestral home, the Mongolian steppes. They would never have returned to the Zone were it not for the absence of humans. This wilderness is allowed to stay a wilderness only at the price of being also thoroughly contaminated. And yet Chernobyl’s megafauna not only survive; they thrive.
Just as the humanities discovered animals (about 30 years after analytic philosophers began arguing for the rights and inherent value of animals), we quickly turned away from megafauna and began theorizing swarms, herds, packs, mushrooms, and then microbes, and eventually objects and hyperobjects. What has come to be called Anthropocene theory seems to place the big animals last on its list. They threaten to pull us back into anthropomorphic projection, outdated discussions of subjectivity, agency, intelligence, and language. Geographer Jamie Lorimer offers some reasons for why megafauna are out of style: “they are too sociological and sagacious to be objects, too strange to be human, too captive and inhabited to be wild, but too wild to be domesticated. There are multiple natures at play in these ecologies and valued ways of being that are more-than-human. There are long, fraught histories of interspecies exchange that precede the originary moment of the Anthropocene and trouble its epochal status.” This is his description of Sri Lanka’s elephants, but it maps well on to Eurasia’s wild horses and all large herbivores that have historically lived in proximity to humans.
Meanwhile, the global loss of the big animals is one of today’s great crises. Megafauna extinctions are due entirely to anthropogenic factors, and may be seen as one continuous process of defaunation beginning in the late Pleistocene. Before homo sapiens, a large diversity of megafauna, including the so-called mega-herbivores, was the norm on every continent. In contrast, today over twenty percent of mammals are threatened with extinction, which includes over sixty percent of herbivores weighing one hundred kilos or more.
Simultaneously, however, we are in a period of “refaunation” in many places. Anthropocene theory may not be interested in megafauna, but conservation scientists certainly are, and at the heart of refaunation attempts today is a practice called trophic rewilding. Deliberate reintroductions of large animals into places from which they have long been gone, or places they have never been before, are no longer imagined as species conservation, but as ecological restoration, or, in the case of Siberia’s Pleistocene Park, even climate change mitigation. Focused on the role of big mammals in ecosystems function and biodiversity, the European bison and feral horse programs throughout Eurasia are considered prime examples of trophic rewilding and held up as proofs of its success.
What makes Chernobyl a wilderness, despite its being a highly militarized, restricted “zone,” is that the animals enjoy relative freedom with regard to choosing mates, eating, and designating territory. But mating holds a privileged place on the list. Large herbivores famously don’t breed well in captivity. Not only do they not mate, but artificial insemination programs also have low success rates. The promise of rewilding is thus implicitly also the promise of free, unbridled sex (pun unashamedly intended).
But this gets a bit complicated in the Zone. What troubles Chernobyl as a rewilding site is not just that there was a disaster there, but that the nature of the disaster echoes in contemporary imaginaries of reproduction. As Ron Broglio points out, the problem of the radioactive animal is actually the problem of containment, specifically in terms of breeding. “The bunny seems innocuous enough until one realizes that it, being a rabbit, breeds others—and with them more potential carriers of the radioactive conditions of their habitat. If there is one radioactive rabbit then there are other animals out there too. How many?” But the danger of reproduction is not just that of increasing numbers. It’s the problem of the congenital birth defect, or “mutation.” The modern goal of eradicating disability has long led to environmentalists using congenital anomalies as cautionary tales about environmental destruction, but nowhere is this more spectacular than in the case of nuclear catastrophe, as we can see from what comes up when one googles “Chernobyl memes.”
The most repeated text is “Meanwhile… in Chernobyl,” each iteration superimposed on some spectacle of “mutation” in humans and animals. Some are digitally created, as in the case of cats with ten pairs of legs, or a bird with a dog’s face, or distortions of scale that show a giant pigeon next to a small person. A separate category consists of undoctored images that create a sort of visual pun, as when a tropical frog displays its normal turquoise coloring which here reads as “radioactive,” or identical black cats with gleaming yellow eyes sit so close to each other in a basket that they appear to be conjoined twins. In the memes featuring humans, the most repeated pun shows a person in sweatpants or a sweatshirt, so stretchy that it allows them to hide their arms or legs completely, thus producing the illusion that they lack a set of limbs. All of the humans in these memes are white, and the sweats do a good job of signifying the former Eastern Bloc. Other memes clearly refer to rural poverty, such as “I can count the number of times I’ve been to Chernobyl on one hand/ It’s seven” which shows the laughing faces of unwashed, young, white men missing many front teeth.
I won’t examine the politics and cultural insensitivity at work in these images at any length here. What interests me is the subtle but operative force of the “meanwhile,” a sort of warning that congenital “tragedy” shows itself only over time and in the meantime, as life goes on and long after you thought the disaster was over. I build here on what Michael Marder writes about the imperceptibility of the disaster of radiation, which turns us into material- rather than conscious witnesses, as the disaster becomes literally incorporated, a part of the flesh: “Those of us who have been in its eerie neighborhood have resembled objects, onto which certain effects have been inflicted, as opposed to subjects in control and aware of what is going on.” But perhaps the ultimate material witnessing of the Chernobyl disaster is not in our bodies, but the bodies of our offspring. The quality of horror in radiation’s imperceptibility is not that it’s truly imperceptible, i.e., never appears, but that it appears later, differently, that you don’t know it’s happening to you until it’s too late and you find yourself the subject of a monstrous birth. In 1986 these were more than fantasies: over 150,000 elective abortions are estimated to have been performed on otherwise healthy pregnancies throughout Europe directly after the accident, out of fear of congenital anomalies.
Marder writes that what exploded in Chernobyl was not only the reactor, but “the future of human dwelling in the natural environment.” But we should add that this explosion—that of humans’ true place in nature—didn’t happen once; it continues to echo, refusing to pass into the past. The disaster itself radiates, due not only to the half-lives of isotopes, but to how we imagine them living on—meanwhile—inside not only individual bodies, but their most important life-sustaining processes. These are also the most “animal” processes.
In 2012, CNN.com published “26 years on: Helping Chernobyl’s Children,” an article specifically about Belarusian children in the area of the greatest radiation fallout after the accident. The article reports that many live full-time in institutions and suffer from congenital heart defects and other chronic illnesses. The piece goes on to explain that these conditions might be attributable to “social and economic fallout” rather than radiation, citing malnutrition, poverty, the depression and apathy that accompany forced relocation, and finally, of course, rampant alcoholism—all conditions of the parents—as just-as-likely causes of the hydrocephaly, microcephaly, and heart problems in the offspring. But the headline, which implies that the strontium-90 “lives on” in the altered DNA of these Belarusian children, who are here named “Chernobyl’s children,” aligns with the received idea that the disaster may be passed on from generation to generation. The threat of the birth defect is the other side of the story of unbridled sex, as public health and environmentalism continue to collude with eugenics.
Inside a wilderness that is free of humans because of something that we fantasize as manifesting in congenital birth defects, the fear that animals—human and not—will never breed remains inseparable from the fear that they will actually breed. I borrow this phrase from an Atlantic article about sex and conjoined twins, since conjoined twinning—in human and nonhuman animals— is indeed high on the list of popular fears about places like Chernobyl. As trophic rewilding becomes the great new hope for climate change mitigation, the very future of the planet, intimately bound up with the future of these animals, depends on sex, which is also at the same time the very thing that produces the monstrous offspring symptomatic of a disaster that won’t go away once and for all.
The Zone is unique, but it is also paradigmatic—a theater for the complicated libidinal architecture of the kinds of post-apocalyptic sites that may in coming years become the primary places for megafauna to live. Sex and desire have always, or at least since modernity, engendered anxieties, but this seems to have become noticeably magnified in recent times (as I have argued elsewhere). Clearly, breeding is not just one aspect among others of the conservationist imaginary. Conservationist sex traffics especially heavily in desire. I invoke Kara Thompson’s essay “Fracking and the Art of Subtext,” where she describes energy extraction and fracking in particular as trafficking in desire. Hers is an essay about land. But when we reduce megafauna to their usefulness for climate change mitigation, we perform a reduction of animals to something like land, broadly speaking.Desire, our most animal feature, becomes a resource, and thus subject to the usual problems of sustainability. This then makes it all the easier for breeding programs to unapologetically perform their own kind of energy extraction, in their efforts to exhaustively instrumentalize the life force itself, libido. And biodiversity conservation—which after all appears only after something terrible has already happened—conserves also this.
 Jamie Lorimer. 2015. Wildlife and the Anthropocene: Conservation after Nature (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), 20.
Note: Enormous thanks to my dear friend, Svitlana Matviyenko.