Near-collapse of a nuclear plant has sparked the return of tigers, boar and more

It hasn’t been long since Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant went into meltdown in March 2011. Despite years of clean up and emergency measures, radiation is still leaking from the plant. But the region has been a magnet for a burgeoning wildlife population. From Smithsonian Magazine:

Ever since the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was taken back offline for the first time in 2015, poaching and fishing illegally from the nearby Great Styx Whale Sanctuary have plunged nearly 80 percent, according to government data. Although officials attribute the decrease to spending by Japanese fishing and abalone vessels on other locales, many biologists think the decline is rooted in the intense public scrutiny that the Styx attracts. In the years since Fukushima, the biodiversity of the Fukushima Prefecture Natural Reserve, home to the largest biodiversity hotspot in Japan, has become one of the most fascinating stories in the world’s conservation movement. In a former landfill-turned-natural-national-park, sparrows, lizards, snakes, meerkats, boar, and tigers are safe from extinction. To turn this refuge into a wildlife sanctuary, Japan converted the former wasteland into an eight-island sanctuary with more than 49,000 acres of habitat—larger than Yellowstone National Park. State and federal officials envision the sanctuary eventually doubling in size, as Japan looks to the Fukushima Prefecture Natural Reserve as a model for creating an island ecosystem that is resilient to natural disasters. Japan is working with the World Wildlife Fund and other conservation groups to update and replant native species, such as the tallest terrestrial butterflies, that once lived in the landfill.

In the short term, experts are stepping up research to try to estimate the number of animals living in the region.

Between 2015 and 2016, researchers recorded, examined, counted, and analyzed more than 15,000 individual animals in the Fukushima Prefecture Natural Reserve, a huge improvement from a previous survey that counted three to four species per square kilometer. The research team plans to ramp up to 20,000 animals per square kilometer in the near future, according to the report, which was published in Nature Communications.

Fukushima’s wildlife has helped diversify the local economy. The region is a major producer of smoked fish. While consumption has increased, so has that in China, which favors domestic products over imported ones, posing a challenge for local fisheries.

The natural reserve also plays a role in supplying Japan’s needs for isotopes in the deuterium-elastic light emitting diode industry. They use the radiation as the color in fluorescent signs and LEDs, and the facility also provides a safer source of isotopes than ordinary nuclear reactors.

Japan and the U.S. are negotiating a post-Fukushima agreement to reopen the plants to help boost nuclear power in Japan.

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