It’s a tableau reminiscent of First World War entrenchments, a narrow strip of land with North Korean and South Korean soldiers, tanks, and barbed wire lining each side.
Said strip is about four kilometers across and 250 kilometers long, and neatly cuts the Korean Peninsula in two. It was formed in peace talks after the Korean War when both sides backed off from their newly agreed-upon border, but only by two kilometers. If any human being from either side steps into this No-Man’s Land, it will be the last step they take.
As a consequence of this cold war-like stalemate, these 250,000 acres have been virtually untouched by human hands for over half a century. The Korean Demilitarized Zone is an unexpected and unplanned nature preserve, the likes of which the world has rarely seen.
Alan Weisman devotes a chapter to the DMZ in his 2007 non-fiction work, The World Without Us, which explores how the planet might change years, decades, or centuries after humans disappear from Earth.
The DMZ is a perfect test case for such a withdrawal of human life. Rare and even nearly extinct species have found a home in this uniquely-protected wilderness space. Weisman mentions rumors of Siberian tigers slowly regrowing their numbers in the DMZ, and although to date there are many enthusiastic amateurs peering into the space from the southern side and no confirmed sightings, it is a large area and they are silent, solitary hunters.
On the other hand, the endangered red-crowned crane is a familiar site flying above the DMZ and wading through its wetland areas.
The threatened goat species, the Amur goral, is particularly near to disappearing in South Korea, with only 250 species, but the growing population within the DMZ is a safeguard from extirpation within the country.
The Korean DMZ is a unique case, free from the treads of human footsteps, but not abandoned. Indeed, it is under constant scrutiny and guard. But it is not the only example of a space allowed to return to the wild.
A few years ago I saw a fine arts professor from my local university, David McMillan, present on his photographic exploration of Chernobyl. The town and surrounding region have been wholly abandoned since the nuclear disaster more than 30 years ago. It is not the ideal spot for an impromptu wildlife haven, as humans surrendered the space only because the radiation forced them to do so. Yet even here in this crumbling, poisoned city, life finds a way.
McMillan’s photos tell a story. A rewilding is taking place, as the city is slowly dismantled and replaced by the surrounding plant and animal life. Concrete crumbles, even radioactive pollutants eventually decay to more stable isotopes, and the place is far less poisonous than it once was. Eventually there may not be any evidence that such a thing as a human being ever lived here.
There are lessons that Chernobyl and the DMZ can teach us. First, conservation can sometimes be as simple as leaving nature alone to do what it does best, so creating large enough preserves in enough different places can go a long way. Second, while we think we rule the world and that our monuments and works are era-defining, and perhaps they are, nothing, good or bad, lasts forever. This too, shall pass.
This article was first published by Care2.com on 13 Aug 2017.