In the last four months, nine Sika deers in Nara prefecture has died due to swallowing of plastic bags. According to the Nara Deer Preservation Foundation (NDPF), the stomachs of the herd were filled with plastic bags and food wrappers.
Since March, fourteen deer have been confirmed dead, and nine of them contained plastics in their stomachs. What’s glaring is that one of the deer had a total of 49 kilograms (seven pounds) worth of plastic in its stomach.
The secretary general of the NDPF, Yoshitaka Ashimura, has confirmed that three of the nine deaths were due to digestive issues related to the ingested plastic.
The deer died of malnutrition since the plastics blocked the mammal’s stomach. Rie Maruko, a member of the conservation group NDPF, said in an interview with Kyodo News, “The deer that died were very skinny, and I was able to feel their bones.”
Japan’s Nara Park is famous for its free-roaming Sika deer. Tourists come from all over the world to interact with these hoofed ruminant mammals. Tourists may purchase treats made for the deer, called “senbei snacks,” which are sugar-free rice crackers.
The NDPF was prompted to hold a mass clean-up of Nara Park last Wednesday. Volunteers went around and collected trash discarded on the streets and in the sewers. They were able to gather over 31 kilograms (68 pounds) of plastic.
Ashimura spoke about the clean-up drive. He said, “The amount of plastic garbage we collected was over our expectation. We are concerned that a mere clean up won’t solve the issue. It’s important that the visitors won’t throw them away, to begin with, to protect deer.”
The local government launched an investigation on the animals’ deaths to identify how the deer ingested the plastics.
Aside from the investigation, authorities are encouraging tourists not to feed the deer with any other food except for the senbei snacks. They will also place multiple signage with illustrations as reminders not to throw trash on the streets.
Sacred animals and Japan’s National treasure
The Sika Deer are spotted deer that is native to East Asia. Japan has the largest population of Sika Deer with more than 1,000 deer currently in the Nara prefecture alone. They mostly live in the hills surrounding the town.
They are considered sacred in Shinto religion, which is why they roam around freely. In Japan culture, the Sika deer are regarded as messengers of the gods. In one of the local legends, a god came into a shrine in Nara riding a deer. Hence, locals do not hunt or harm them.
In 1957, deers were declared as Japan’s National Treasure. Many deer congregate in Nara Park, where they interact with locals and tourists. They have grown accustomed to people feeding them senbei snacks, which are available all around the park. When it starts getting dark, the deer all go back to their home in the hills and forests nearby. Most do not stay in town at the end of the day.
They are known for being tame. They are also famous for being polite–bowing to people in exchange for some food. The deer are also not afraid of people.
Even though they do not prey on people or animals, they can be aggressive when they want to be fed.
There are reports of deer pushing people or trying to reach for people’s bags whenever they smell food on them. There are also cases of deer biting when people withhold the snacks from them in attempts to playfully tease them.
It is best not to have any food in your person or your bag when you are taking a walk in Nara Park. If a deer smells your food, they will seek it out and try to get a hold of it.
The deer also do not like taking selfies with the tourist. Reports of deer head butting or pushing tourists who take selfies with them are all over the internet.
With the rise of tourism in Nara, authorities put up signs all over town to help visitors decode a deer’s “body language.” In 2017, Nara had a total of 2.09 million tourists. Authorities also had to remind tourists that the deer are wild animals and not controlled or maintained by the park.