Anybody who has travelled to India must have invariably encountered cows on the streets; animals that disrupt traffic and refuse to move. Now replace cows with deer and you’ve got Nara.
Nara is the capital city of Nara Prefecture, and lies south of Kyoto, less than two hours from Tokyo by train. It is a beautiful city full of temples, shrines and ancient ruins, and home to one of the world's largest wooden buildings and one of the largest known statues of Buddha. Between 710 to 784, Nara even served as the capital of Japan. Today, this city of 370,000 has approximately 1,200 deer roaming the streets.
According to local folklore, a deity named Takemikazuchi arrived in the old capital riding a white deer to act as its protector, and as a result of this legend, for the last 1,300 years the deer of Nara have been considered sacred and divine. Killing one of these sacred deer was a capital offense punishable by death up until 1637, the last recorded date of a breach of that law. After World War II, the deer were officially stripped of their sacred/divine status, and were instead designated as national treasures and are protected as such.
The deer are concentrated mostly inside Nara Park, their main habitat where visitors and food are plenty, but some stray into streets, enter restaurants, stroll into public restrooms, nibble on one's clothes and eat another’s purse in their pursuit of food. Centuries of benevolent attitude towards these animals have turned them fearless of humans and aggressive. At vending machines, where visitors can purchase deer crackers for feeding, the deer will push you aside to get at the chute, mob you down and take over sandwiches, and chew on keys and camera. You can’t even “shoo” them away as even the slightest utterance of the word brings instant admonishments from the local people. But they are not ungrateful. Most of the deer have learned to bow after receiving a treat, as is the local custom.
Lately, the deer are causing destruction of the Kasugayama Forest Reserve located on the eastern side of Nara Park, just outside city limits. They strip bark from mature trees in the forest and eat young tree shoots, low-growing plants and low branches.
“Japan, as well as the city and prefecture of Nara, recognize that Nara’s deer herd has grown too large and is having a negative impact on agricultural production, the plants in Nara Park, and tourists,” said Yoshihiko Kusumi, an employee at Nara Prefecture Board of Education’s Department of Cultural Property Protection, which handles natural monuments including the deer. The government is studying the problem, but no action has been taken to resolve it.
Controlling the deer population through culling, limiting food sources through fencing, and decreasing pregnancy rates by hormonal treatment or by separating females and males during the rutting season are some of the possible solutions. But the protected status of the animal as well as various cultural and economic barriers have stalled action.
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