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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Income Trickles In From Intrepid Chernobyl Tourists

CHERNOBYL, Ukraine -- Yury Zayets pointed his binoculars toward a distant copse of birches and shouted excitedly from midway up the fire tower: "They're over there, grazing near the forest."

It had taken nearly two hours of driving through the unique radioactive wilderness born of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster to find them, but one of the world's few wild herds of rare Przewalski horses finally came into view.

"Stay here," Denis Vishnevsky, a zoologist with the Chernobyl Ecology Center, said after the group of official guides and a journalist piled out of their minibus to see the short but powerful horses, introduced here in 1998 to eat what was supposedly "excess" vegetation in the depopulated area. "They'll come to us."

"Chernobyl safaris," mused Rima Kiselytsia, a guide with Chernobylinterinform, the agency that shepherds all visitors to the "Zone of Alienation" around the now-decommissioned reactor, an area that once was home to 135,000 people. "It's a strange idea, but I like it."

Chernobyl tourism has been a hot topic in Ukraine since January, when a United Nations report urged Chernobyl communities to learn to live safely with radiation, such as consuming only produce grown outside the zone. The report suggested specialized tourism as a possible way to bring money into a region that has swallowed more than $100 billion in subsidies from Soviet, Ukrainian and international government funds since the nuclear accident 16 years ago.

Back in the town of Chernobyl, where the zone's administration manages the no man's land around the destroyed reactor, one official said economic benefits of tourism will never be more than minor. But he doesn't reject the idea outright. "The UN is 12 years too late," said Mykola Dmytruk, deputy director of Chernobylinterinform, referring to technicians who have been coming to the zone for that long. "We've been allowing tours since 1994."

A few Kiev tourist agencies advertise Chernobyl excursions on their web sites, but so far the zone administration doesn't actively promote the idea. "A great deal still isn't known," said Dmytruk, "and we warn everyone about the risks, even scientists."

The risks, while small, are real. And so is the desolation. But the aftermath of the accident has created a misleading stereotype of the zone as a wasteland, a desert devoid of life, and certainly not a place a person would want to visit.

In fact, by ending industrialization, deforestation, cultivation and other human intrusions, radiation has transformed the zone into one of Europe's largest wildlife habitats, a fascinating and at times beautiful wildness teeming with large animals such as moose, wolves, boars and deer. It is home to 270 bird species, 31 of them endangered -- making the zone one of the few places in Europe to spot rarities such as black storks and booted eagles.

And traveling to Chernobyl might qualify as adventure tourism. The very knowledge of the buzzing background of radiation imbues even the prosaic act of walking down the street with an aura of excitement. It isn't the same adrenaline punch as bungee jumping in the Andes, but it is a palpable sensation, like being surrounded by ghosts.

By law, no one can enter the zone without permission. But except for children under 17, the administration may give permission to pretty much anyone. The vast majority of the nearly 1,000 annual visitors are scientists, journalists, politicians and international nuclear officials, but the zone has hosted a handful of what Dmytruk calls "pure" tourists -- including three Japanese in 2000 -- and it can put together customized programs, such as safaris in search of Przewalski horses, which some experts believe are the ancestors of all domestic horses -- but are far more aggressive than their domestic counterparts.

"If a group of Californians wants to go bird-watching, we can organize that," Dmytruk said, adding that "so long as they know the difference between plutonium and potatoes."

Chernobyl isn't Club Med. But more than 15 years after the fourth reactor bloc spewed radiation around the globe, the risks mostly are manageable. About one-quarter of the cesium and strontium have decayed, and 95 percent of the remaining radioactive molecules are no longer in fallout that can get on or inside a visitor, but have sunk to a depth of about 13 centimeters in the soil.

From there, they have insinuated themselves into the food chain, making the zone's diverse and abundant flora and fauna radioactive indeed. An antler shed recently by one Chernobyl elk was suffused with so much strontium that it cannot be allowed out of the zone. But three Przewalski foals born in the wild, while radioactive, have grown to adolescence with no visible effects.

Radioactivity has receded to the background. On an average day, a visitor might receive an extra radiation dose about equivalent to taking a two-hour plane trip, zone officials say.

That is, if the visitor follows the strict safety rules: "Don't eat local food, stay on the pavement and go only where your guide takes you," Dmytruk said.

It is almost impossible to smell fresher air in an urban setting than in the town of Chernobyl, where the number of cars seen on a warm April day could be counted on one hand and songbirds frequently provide the only sound.

"It is one of the zone's paradoxes, but because human activity is banned nearly everywhere, the region is one of Ukraine's environmentally cleanest," Dmytruk said. "Except for radiation."

Today, villages slowly succumb to encroaching forests. In the abandoned town of Pripyat, fewer than 4 kilometers from the nuclear reactor, empty black windows stare blindly from high-rise buildings at kindergartens littered with heartbreakingly small gas masks.

It might seem like an odd place for a rewarding tourism experience. But nowhere else can a visitor stand amid a herd of wild Przewalski horses like a character in Jean Auel's Ice Age novels, or watch a pair of rare white-tailed eagles circling above the ghostly high-rises of Pripyat, a moving monument to the devastating effects of technology gone awry, and nature's near miraculous resilience and recovery.