Increasing numbers of the nationally protected species are being affected by plastic bag consumption.

One of the highlights of a visit to Nara is the chance to walk amongst the city’s free-roaming deer. And with more than two million foreign visitors last year alone, some of the deer in the area have been so well-fed by day trippers that they find it hard to stand on their feet during holiday periods.

However, it appears that some tourists have been feeding these nationally protected animals something other than the deer-friendly senbei crackers sold by vendors in the area. According to a recent report from the Nara Deer Welfare Association, the animals have been eating plastic, which has led to the deaths of a number of deer in recent months.

▼ A senbei vendor in Nara.

A veterinarian from the association said a sickly looking deer was found near Todaiji temple in Nara Park on 23 March, and although they attempted to feed it, it refused to eat. The severely weak 17-year-old female deer–which weighed 30 kilograms (66 pounds), 10 kilograms below the healthy weight range–died the next day.

An autopsy revealed that the stomach of the animal was almost entirely filled with hardened material that looked like a clump of polyethylene bags. The mass weighed 3.2 kilograms (7 pounds).

Like cows and sheep, deer chew their cud as part of a process called rumination in order to digest nutrients in plant-based foods. The food first enters the rumen, one of their four-chambered stomachs, where it’s broken down by bacteria before being regurgitated for the animal to chew in order to be fully digested. However, the accumulation of so many bags inside the deer’s stomach made it unable to regurgitate, digest, and ingest new food, resulting in its death.

▼ Deer are designed to eat plants, not plastic.

A similar case was recorded last year, when a deer that still had its summer coat in November lost weight and died. An autopsy revealed a clump of bags in its stomach as well.

Since March this year, a total of eight deer with deaths from unknown causes have been autopsied. Six were found to have plastic bags in their stomachs, with the largest clump weighing 4.3 kilograms.

The association is now appealing to the public to help save the deer from themselves by being more careful with what they allow the deer to eat. Signs around Nara clearly state that deer should not be fed anything other than deer senbei, but there have been sightings of tourists holding out plastic bags with food for the deer to eat, and cases where deer bite into plastic bags carried by tourists. Deer are unable to tell the difference between food and plastic, and if tourists are carrying food or sweets inside plastic bags, which are at nose-height for the animals, the deer’s keen sense of smell will lead them to believe the bag and its contents are both edible food.

Littering around Nara Park is also a problem for the local deer population, so visitors are being reminded to take their litter with them. And in an effort to help tackle the problem, the Nara Deer Welfare Association has now developed a special environmentally friendly bag made from natural materials, to stop any possibility of plastic being consumed inadvertently.

▼ The “Otomo” bags are being sold in souvenir stores and other shops around Nara for 1,350 yen (US$12.33).

So next time you’re traveling to Nara to meet the deer, you might want to ditch the plastic bags and keep an eye out for any plastic litter lying about. And don’t let the animals bully you into giving them everything they want, no matter how persistent they may be.

Source: Livedoor News via Hachima Kikou
Featured image: Flickr/coniferconifer
Insert images: Flickr/Arnie PappFlickr/Su–May, Flickr/Charles Lam

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