Nature's capacity to heal itself is absolutely incredible. I for one believed that Chernobyl would forever be a "No-Mans Land" - but obviously the animals don't seem to have paid much attention...
With lynx, wolves, eagles and wild horses, the radioactive no-go zone around Chernobyl has become a rich natural reserve in the 20 years since the accident at the nuclear power plant.
Dangerously soaked with radiation following the April 26, 1986 accident at the then Soviet plant, some 4,000 square kilometres of land surrounding the Chernobyl plant were evacuated and closed to humans.
In the two decades since, Mother Nature has had nearly free reign over this patch of land straddling the border between Ukraine and Belarus. The results have been impressive.
Take for example the famed Przewalski's horse, believed to be the only true modern descendant of the wild horse. In 1998, 17 of them were introduced to the area.
Today officials who accompany visitors to the zone say the steeds number between 80 and 90, and the area around Chernobyl is one of the few places in the world where they still roam free.
Nearly completely unperturbed by man — some 350 "self-settlers" still live inside the zone, but this mainly elderly group generally keeps to its eight villages — the flora and fauna here have developed with virtually no human interference. In one day, a lucky first-time visitor may see elk, foxes, otters, beavers, wild boars, gray cranes and endangered great spotted eagles. Regular visitors say bears have also been spotted in the area.
With so few people, the zone is the perfect habitat for endangered species. The Chernobyl International Radioecology Laboratory has so far recorded the presence there of more than 400 animal species, including 280 kinds of birds and 50 endangered species.
And despite apocalyptic predictions at the time of the Chernobyl disaster, the animal species living inside the forbidden zone are not strange, disproportioned mutants. "The mutants never resembled the monsters described in the media and all died out quickly," said Sergei Gashak, an ornithologist at the Chernobyl lab.
The ecosystem surrounding Chernobyl has passed through several stages since the accident. During the first year-long phase, plants and animals that were most affected by the radiation died. Some areas were so soaked with radioactivity that they had to be completely razed, such as a pine forest that became known as the "Red Forest" for the levels of radiation registered there.
Over the next six years, nature slowly licked its wounds following the disaster, he said. Today it is coming back with a vengeance. The Chernobylinterinform — the state enterprise that provides the obligatory guides for all visitors — claims that the pines planted in place of the "Red Forest" are thriving.
Along with the recovering flora and fauna, a tourism industry has taken root. Hundreds of human visitors have come since the authorities began accepting tourist groups three years ago.
The curious have mostly come from abroad and have included Americans, Germans and Japanese, guides say. They usually come in small groups during the summer, to be driven by guides to take a look at the power plant and at a village of the mostly elderly who have shrugged off government restrictions and radiation levels to return to the place they lived prior to the 1986 accident.
Most tourists have a moribund fascination with the town of Pripyat, which counted 45,000 residents at the time of the accident but that today is a Soviet ghost town overrun by vegetation. Among the most bizarre visitors was a newly married couple who wanted to end their honeymoon in the city.
Many of the people who work in the zone in up to 15-day stints hope that a protected natural preserve can someday be established here. But even after two decades signs remain that this is no ordinary wilderness zone.
There are checkpoints on entry and access is still forbidden to areas considered the most contaminated; the cemetery of buses, fire trucks and helicopters that helped evacuate the zone's residents and today are awaiting incineration; and the frequent beeps of the dosimeter every time the level of the surrounding, invisible radiation jumps.
And there is of course the radiation itself: invisible, odorless, tasteless, it permeates the buried buildings, cars and cattle, the earth that covers them, the rivers that flow nearby.
And it will do so for a long time to come.