Japan's famous Nara deers are being culled over population and crop damage concerns

Considered in Japanese culture to be "messengers of the gods", Nara’s nearly, 200 deer have become a symbol of the city and a natural treasure.
Considered in Japanese culture to be "messengers of the gods", Nara’s nearly, 200 deer have become a symbol of the city and a natural treasure.PHOTO: YE LIMEI

TOKYO (THE WASHINGTON POST) - The ancient Japanese city of Nara is famous for its old Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, but also for its present-day deer.

Every year, hordes of tourists flock to Nara, south of Kyoto, to experience the peace of the historic sites and the rambunctiousness of the 1,200 or so deer that freely roam through the park in the middle of these sites.

However, the number of deer in Nara is about to get significantly smaller.

Nara Prefectural Government is embarking on its first cull of the deer, which were designated a natural treasure by the Japanese government in 1957.

The deer are said to be the divine messengers of the Kasuga Grand shrine, a Unesco World Heritage site and one of Nara's main attractions.

The deer are regulated under the Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties but Nara authorities applied to the Cultural Affairs Agency in Tokyo for permission to cull the deer because of the agricultural damage that they have caused.

The deer are blamed for eating rice, bamboo and vegetable crops.

Permission was granted and the authorities have started setting out box traps to try to capture 120 of the deer on the eastern fringes of the park. The deer will then be killed.

Nara prefecture's park office had received some complaints from locals about the cull, said the office's deputy head Yuichiro Kitabata. But the deer being killed were not the ones in the park but outside it, he said.

Under a new zoning policy introduced last year, Nara park will be considered a "priority protection zone" while the area around it will be a "semi-priority protection zone" where deer will still be protected.

But in the "borderline zone", deer found damaging farmers' crops can be captured and killed and deer anywhere else can be captured and killed under any circumstances, the Japan Times reported last year.

Local officials like Mr Kitabata have been stressing that the deer in the park are safe - but this presumes that the deer know the zoning boundaries.

"Nara has a long history of people living side by side with deer in harmony," another government official told the Asahi Shimbun. "We want to continue efforts to coexist in peace while preventing damage to crops."

The deer in and around Nara park pose a danger to people as well as crops. Bambi they are not.

Having grown used to hordes of tourists wanting to feed them special deer crackers that are on sale all around the park, they can be aggressive in trying to solicit the crackers.

A record 121 people were injured by deer in the park last year, according to local government figures. Among the injured, 77 of them were Chinese tourists, the Mainichi Shimbun reported in May.

The vast majority of the injuries - 79 - occurred while feeding the deer. Most injuries were minor, although one person broke a bone and six needed stitches.

With tourism to Nara growing steadily, the park has installed signs in English, Chinese and Korean warning visitors about being bitten or charged at by deer.

But it is not just their behaviour but their numbers that are a problem.

Japan's human population may be shrinking but its deer population is booming - deer now outnumber humans in Nara by almost two to one, and experts estimate that could rise to three to one in the next five years, according to Rocket News.

To try to lower the deer population by less extreme means, the government-run organisation "Let's Make The Deer Population More Sustainable And Enjoy Nara Again Friendship Association" is allowing people to adopt a deer and take it home.

The group hopes that this humane method would deal with the deer overpopulation, Rocket News reported in April.

No word yet on how many people - Japanese or foreign tourists - have taken the group up on its offer.