Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Glow in the Dark Wolves

Driven to tame nature, the Soviet government declared war on wolves during its “land improvement” binges. Yet ironically, the Soviet Union’s greatest ecological disaster would eventually provide a safe haven for the wolves of Chernobyl. A group of German, Ukrainian, and Belarusian scientists track the apparently thriving wolf packs living around the notorious nuclear reactor in Klaus Feichtenberger’s Radioactive Wolves (promo here), the winner of the best habitat program award at the 2011 Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, which kicks off the new season of Nature on PBS tomorrow night.

They really are radioactive. As a result, the scientists studying the wolves are limited in the amount of time they can spend in the wide no-man’s land surrounding Chernobyl and must take precautions not to ingest hair particles when interacting with the animals. Surprisingly, despite the initial devastation caused by the meltdown, the area has become a sheltered Eden for wildlife. As the top predators, the health of the wolves necessarily implies every creature below them in the food chain is also flourishing.

Radioactive largely follows the traditional format for nature films, mainly observing the wolves in their habitat and the scientists’ efforts to collar and examine them, with some explanatory narration from Harry Smith. However, it rather forthrightly addresses the Soviets’ massive assault on the environment, draining marshes to create a habitat-devastating system of canals. Nor does it paint a particularly flattering portrait of the Soviet response to the mounting Chernobyl debacle.

Feichtenberger and crew captured some truly striking images of the once bustling Pripyat ghost city, now reclaimed by the indigenous wildlife. Frankly, Radioactive is a somewhat bold production, because it largely undercuts the anti-nuclear campaign’s propaganda of scorched earth and lifeless wastelands as the inevitable consequence of nuclear power. Granted, humans cannot live in the zone, but nature has rebounded, reversing the damage of years of state economic planning.

Though twenty-five years have passed since the Chernobyl disaster, it is still too early for the scientists in Radioactive to make many sweeping conclusions. Still, it seems safe to say the reality is far better than nearly anyone would expect. Offering a rare opportunity to see an area where few humans will ever tread (much like the theatrical documentaries Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Into Eternity), Radioactive is exactly the sort of programming public television was intended to present. It airs this Wednesday (10/19) on PBS as part of the new season of Nature.

(Photos: Klaus Feichtenberger)