our enchanted postapocalypse

THE WILD BOAR IS STANDING 30 OR 40 yards away, at the bottom of a grassy bank, staring right at me. Even from this distance I can see its outrageously long snout, its giant pointed ears, and the spiny bristles along its back. It looks part porcupine, a number of shades of ocher and gray. And it’s far bigger than I expected, maybe chest-high to a man. The boar is like some minor forest god straight from the wilderness, gazing wild-eyed at the strange spectacle of a human being. For a moment it seems to consider charging me, then thinks better of it. When it trots away, it moves powerfully, smoothly, on spindly, graceful legs twice as long as a pig’s, and vanishes into the trees.

I climb back into our VW van, tingling all over. The sighting bodes well. I’ve come to what is being dubbed Europe’s largest wildlife refuge in early July, when I knew spotting animals wouldn’t be so easy. (Winter, with its scarcity of food and lack of foliage, makes them more visible.) And within a couple of hours I’ve ticked a wild boar off the list. Maybe luck is on our side.

But luck isn’t our only obstacle to wildlife spotting here. This is northern Ukraine’s Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, a huge area, some 60 miles across in places, that’s been off-limits to human habitation since 1986. Even now, 19 years after the collapse of the USSR, nothing happens in this former Soviet republic without sheets of paper typed and stamped in quintuplicate. It took months of e-mails and phone calls to get permission to spend a few days here. Yes, we’re only a couple of foreign vagabonds—photographer Rory Carnegie is an old travel buddy of mine from England—but we have cameras and a telephoto lens, and my notepad has lines in it: obviously we’re spies. The Soviet Union may have died, but the Soviet mind-set has not.

Henry Shukman

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~ by ironcupshrug on 03/10/2011.

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