Home in the Danger Zone
Life in Korea’s demilitarised zone.
During the 1950’s Korea’s hills reverberated with gunfire as the once idyllic countryside was transformed into the killing fields of a civil war. By the time the 1953 Armistice was signed, over two million people had died and the land lay in ruins.
Eventually the North and South Koreans agreed on a no-go zone between their territories. Today, the demilitarised zone (DMZ) is one of the most heavily fortified borders in the world. More than a million landmines have been sown along its perimeter. No humans ever enter many parts of the zone and some areas have been completely isolated for over fifty years. That isolation has led to an incredible transformation from bloody battlefield to wildlife refuge.
Today the DMZ is home to a unique collection of animals, some of whom are unable to survive elsewhere in Korea. Outside the zone, they’ve either been hunted heavily or there just isn’t space for them as industry and agriculture eat up wild areas. Nowhere else in the world is a wildlife oasis fenced in and surrounded by such heavy armour. Along the DMZ, almost two million troops face off in a constant state of readiness for a war that both sides anticipate could reignite at any time.
The no-go zone is a ribbon of land running coast to coast for 240 kilometres (150 miles). For most of that route it’s around 4 kilometres (two-and-half miles) wide. It’s brimming with amazing wildlife. The crystal clear water of its rivers provide the perfect home for Siberian trout or Lenok and the short-clawed otter while other threatened or rare species such as red-crowned crane, swan goose and Korean water deer also flourish in this dangerous yet beautiful setting.
The troops of the border zone are probably the only soldiers in the world with a duty to care for wildlife. In winter months, when temperatures plummet as low as -20 degrees Celsius (-4 F), soldiers share their food scraps with wild boar. They feed cabbages and potatoes to the rare Chinese goral or mountain goat, a tradition that’s been going on for many years. With less than 250 gorals left in Korea, helping them through the winter is vital for the survival of the species. In between patrols, the soldiers also carry sacks of grain up into the mountains to feed the wild boars.
Ironically the conflict and the division of Korea has allowed these creatures to survive and even flourish against the odds in this strange yet beautiful sanctuary.