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Wildlife Photographer of the Year: a fearless fox in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

In the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, which surrounds the site of the world's most famous nuclear disaster, photographer Adrian Bliss came upon an inquisitive red fox.

Adrian was photographing the canteen of Middle School Number Three - one of the most iconic rooms in the Exclusion Zone - when the red fox (Vulpes vulpes) trotted through the strewn gas masks.

The fox's brazen, unexpected entrance was a chance encounter and a welcome surprise. Seizing the opportunity in front of him, Adrian quickly captured his photograph just seconds before the fox relinquished its search for food and jumped out of a nearby window.

The result was a spine-tingling picture, highly commended in the Urban Wildlife category of the fifty-fourth Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition.

A haunting image

'I was thrilled to capture what seemed to be this rare living thing in such a bleak, desolate place,' says Adrian.

'This fox was scavenging and it must've learnt that its best pickings were to be found in Pripyat, the most famous and frequently visited part of the Exclusion Zone

'I later found out that in the absence of humans, wildlife is thriving. Nature is slowly reclaiming the land we stole and spoiled.'

Filmmaker Josh Cowan in Pripyat. Image by Adrian Bliss.

Adrian's travel companion, Josh Cowan, looks out across the Pripyat landscape. Credit: Adrian Bliss


Adrian and fellow filmmaker Josh Cowan originally planned their trip to Ukraine to explore the area's abandoned towns and derelict buildings, which have been immortalised in numerous documentaries, films and video games.

The legacy of the disaster

In the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear explosion in 1986, 116,000 people were permanently evacuated from a 30-kilometre radius of the accident. This area remains mostly uninhabited by humans because there are some parts that continue to be highly radioactive. Pripyat is particularly treacherous, with its still-crumbling buildings presenting an additional hazard.

'It's a perilous no man's land, policed only by guards on the borders, stationed to keep undocumented visitors out and contaminated materials in,' says Adrian.

'There are numerous checkpoints on the way out of the Exclusion Zone where every visitor has to be screened for contamination.

'Thankfully, we were clean every time.' 

A view of Pripyat's abandoned buildings. Credit: Adrian Bliss


Despite having an experienced guide with them to avoid the most heavily contaminated areas and keep them safe, the radiation still had an effect on Adrian.

'You can't see the radiation, so it is difficult to know when you are in danger. The Geiger counter gives you an indication, but it doesn't stop the paranoia from setting in.

'We were a bit nervous getting screened at the checkpoints. If you're found to be contaminated, you are stripped and hosed down, and your clothes are disposed of.'

A resourceful predator

The concert halls, leisure centres, cinemas, fairgrounds, town halls, cafes and train stations remain barren of human presence, but wildlife is making its mark.

Species of elk, roe, deer, wild boar, wolves and other animals roam freely in an environment which has abundant vegetation. Without industry or traffic to contend with, habitats are protected from the threat of human interference.

Roberto Portela Miguez, Senior Curator in Charge of Mammals at the Museum, suggests we should not be bewildered by the fox's presence in the Exclusion Zone. 

Josh Cowan sits down to play the piano in an abandoned concert hall. Credit: Adrian Bliss


He says, 'When I first looked at the image I wasn't surprised to see a fox in such a bleak environment. If any species could still make it in such desolate conditions, it would be the almost ubiquitous and resourceful red fox.

'The adaptable and opportunistic red fox has the widest geographical range of any member of the order Carnivora across the entire northern hemisphere from the Arctic Circle to North Africa, Central America and the Asiatic steppes.'

'The red fox's versatility and eclectic diet are likely to ensure its persistence despite changes in landscape and prey base.'

A happy home?

In the 30 years since the explosion the numbers of animals in the in the Exclusion Zone seem to have rebounded, but at what cost remains to be seen.

The immediate ecological effects of the Chernobyl disaster were significant, with swathes of pine forest destroyed and major radioactive contamination causing reductions in some populations of flora and fauna. 

Despite evidence to suggest some mammals are thriving in Chernobyl, the long-term effects of radiation on animals in the Exclusion Zone is still unclear and scientific studies concerning the effect of low-level, long-term radiation on animal welfare remain inconclusive.

Footage from the Exclusion Zone. Credit: Josh Cowan

Nonetheless, the immediate area surrounding the nuclear power plant has changed dramatically - including the introduction of new forms of energy production. Since July 2018, the Chernobyl solar power plant has been providing energy to the Ukrainian power grid, with over 3,700 solar panels generating power just a stone's throw the epicentre of the 1986 disaster. It is yet to be seen whether this will have an effect on local wildlife. 

An unforgettable locale

The Exclusion Zone is a place that tells its own tale. 'It is a haunting and mysterious place with a dark past, and you can't help but be intrigued,' Adrian says.

'I would love to return someday to explore and take some more pictures, although I have no plans to just yet. I've probably had enough radiation for a lifetime.'

Adrian Bliss. Credit: Josh Cowan


This year, thanks to Adrian's image, that story is being told in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition. 

Adrian does not have a professional background or training in wildlife photography - not to mention this year was the first time he has entered the competition. Reflecting on this, he says, 'I feel a little bit underqualified but very honoured to have my picture up with some of the world's best wildlife photography.'

Visit Wildlife Photographer of the Year

The fifty-sixth exhibition is now open at the Natural History Museum. Book tickets now.

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