Oh deer! Nara’s sacred deer on the brink of losing their protected status

Unbeknown to most tourists, the booming deer population has been causing the local government problems.

Nara, Japan’s old capital, is a treasure trove of cultural heritage.  

It is home to eight temples, shrines, and ruins, including Todai-ji, one of the world’s largest wooden buildings, and together with Kasugayama Primeval Forest, collectively form the Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Aside from its long history and rich culture, Japan’s old capital is home to one other star attraction, the thousands of cute and friendly sika deer that call the city home.

Nara’s imposing Todai-ji. Photo by Vladimir Haltakov from Unsplash

Unbeknown to most tourists, however, the booming deer population has been causing the local government problems. Now, the beloved deer, considered sacred for centuries, are on the verge of losing their sacred status.

Why are sika deer considered sacred?

The deer are regarded as protectors of cities and messengers from the gods and are thus considered sacred by the Japanese.

Legend has it that the deity enshrined in the city’s famous Kasuga Taisha Shrine rode to Nara on a sacred deer from a shrine in Ibaraki Prefecture. Because of this, deer were thought of as holy—the helpers of gods—and have been carefully protected for many years. 

But Nara’s deer are slowly losing that protected status or at least some of them. 

On the brink

The deer roaming around Nara are generally tame and are used to human interaction. While these gentle and graceful creatures draw thousands upon thousands of tourists to Nara, the government has recently proposed to cull dozens of them due to some pressing concerns.

Nara’s beloved deer are also considered sacred as they are believed to be messengers from the gods. Photo by Joey Huang from Unsplash

One of which is to prevent them from damaging crops. There were also reports that those taken under the care of a local animal welfare organization are allegedly neglected.

Also, with more deer means less space for them to roam around. According to an article on the South China Morning Post, the surge in deer population means the border between where they can go and graze and the areas where they are not meant to be is becoming harder to protect.

A three-tier zoning is currently in place to determine which of the deer are protected and which could be culled. There’s a “protected area,” which includes the deer in Nara Park. Then there’s the “buffer zone” wherein deer that are injured or those that have become a nuisance by getting into farmlands and eating crops are trapped and transported to fenced enclosures in a facility. Lastly, there’s the “controlled zone” that lies beyond the buffer zone, where sadly up to 180 animals are euthanized every year.

The famed deer of Nara daw tourists from all over the world. Photo by Worasat Srodsri from Unsplash

In response to the booming deer population, a committee formed for the purpose of resolving animal-related concerns released a plan that would permit the culling of deer found in a buffer zone immediately around the park.

The panel also suggested euthanasia for some deer within the buffer zone, adding how many deer would be put to death will be finalized in the coming months.

Okimasa Murakami, chairman of the panel, hopes the public will be “understanding” of the need to cull more deer, according to the same SCMP article.

An overwhelmed facility

The recommendation to cull the adorable creatures is heartbreaking and the root of such a plan is just as sad.

The culling bid came after accusations of deer maltreatment first surfaced late last year, according to an article in the Asahi Shimbun. A veterinarian working for the Nara Deer Preservation Foundation sounded the alarm that about 270 animals in enclosures were starving to death in the foundation’s facility. 

Officials of the foundation which takes in deer caught destroying farmers’ fields or injured in road accidents, denied the veterinary surgeon’s claims.

An article from the Asahi Shimbun late last year reported on the alleged neglect of deer in a foundation’s facility in Nara. Photo from Asahi Shimbun

In a separate article, the Asahi Shimbun reported that Nobuyuki Yamazaki, the secretary general of the foundation, said that many of the deer were emaciated because they were “worn out at the time of their capture or failed to adapt to a new and unfamiliar environment.”

The deer in Nara Park are of little concern. They are generally healthy and well-fed, thanks to the thousands of tourists who visit the park each day and feed them biscuits. They are also capable of finding their own food.

The deer at Nara Park are generally well-fed, thanks to the thousands of tourists who visit the park each day and feed them biscuits. Photo by Alessio Ferretti from Unsplash

The deer crackers, which are registered with the foundation, are sugar free and are made of wheat flour and rice bran. A portion of the profits goes to efforts to protect the deer.

The problem lies with the sick and injured animals at the facility. Their numbers are increasing and there is not enough food or staff to care for them.

According to the SCMP article, the Nara city government is “aware of the matter, and additional funds have been earmarked for the preservation organization.”

Only time will tell if the government can come up with a solution that strikes a balance between nature and the needs of the community, including the tourism industry. And at the end of the day, sacred or not, Nara’s majestic deer are deserving of respect and protection as in all living beings. 

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