TOKYO • Japan's ancient city of Nara is famous not just for its Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, but also its ever-present deer.
Every year, 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 roaming freely in Nara Park.
However, the number of deer in Nara is about to get significantly smaller. Nara's 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 they have caused.
The deer are blamed for eating rice, bamboo and vegetable crops.
Permission was granted and the authorities have this week 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 - a detail that is curiously missing from most Japanese newspaper reports.
Nara prefecture's park office had received some complaints from locals about the cull, said Mr Yuichiro Kitabata, deputy head of the office.
But the deer being culled 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.
The deer pose a danger to people too. Having grown used to tourists wanting to feed them special deer crackers that are on sale all around the park, they can be aggressive in trying to get at the crackers. A record 121 people were injured by deer in the park last year, government figures show. Among the injured, 77 were Chinese tourists, the Mainichi Shimbun reported in May.
But it's 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.