Nara deer act mysteriously, even though there are fewer of them around than last year.

The city of Nara in Nara prefecture is synonymous with shika (deer), who freely roam the streets and bow to tourists in Nara Park in return for senbei rice crackers. With travel restrictions currently impacting the number of international tourists to Japan, however, visitor numbers have dropped dramatically, meaning there are less people around to feed the deer, and witness a special summer-only phenomenon called “shikadamari“.

Loosely translating to “deer gathering spot”, shikadamari is the unofficial term used for the phenomenon, which occurs opposite the Nara National Museum inside the park at around 6:30 p.m. during the summer months.

It’s a particularly unusual sight as the deer gather at the same spot, at the same hour, and for the same amount of time each day, with the animals leaving shortly after 7:00 p.m. Our Nara-based reporter, K. Masami, has seen this phenomenon occur every summer during July and August but this year, she was curious to know what the situation would be like with fewer visitors to the park.

Last year, Masami recorded the end of shikadamari season on 12 August but this year, she saw the deer still congregating on 17 August. Wondering if temperature might play a part in this year’s later season, Masami found that temperatures reached a high of 33.9 degrees Celsius (93 degrees Fahrenheit) and a low of 26.2 degrees Celsius on 12 August 2019. On 17 August this year, the temperature rose to a high of 37.1 degrees, with a low of 26 degrees. The conditions certainly didn’t seem to show any correlation so it can’t be said that the temperature alone is responsible for the phenomenon.

Last year, Masami counted 623 deer gathered in the shikadamari spot, but this year, she counted 216. This was less than half the number spotted the year before, so our reporter contacted the Nara Deer Preservation Foundation to find out if such a drop in shikadamari participants was normal. A representative from the foundation said:

“We don’t have an understanding of the deer numbers in the so-called shikadamari spot so we don’t really know. We can’t really say because it’s a natural phenomenon.”

According to a 2019 survey by the Nara Deer Preservation Foundation, Nara Park is home to 1,388 deer. While roughly half of the park’s deer took part in the daily summer gathering last year, the numbers seen this year represent less than a quarter of the total population.

▼ However, the deer still outnumbered the visitors in the area when they gathered together in the evening.

While the number of deer taking part in the summer gathering remains a mystery, the reason why they gather is also puzzling. Though one plausible explanation for the phenomenon is that the deer come to this particular spot to cool down, as a large vent is located in the vicinity, nobody can explain the exact reason behind it. After all, if the deer really come to the area in search of some cool respite from the sweltering heat, why don’t they just congregate in the ponds around the park instead?

And why do they gather together, in close proximity to the body heat of other animals? With the Nara Deer Preservation Foundation baffled by the unusual behaviour, it looks like this summer event is set to remain a mystery for now.

▼ Some people have joked that the drop in deer numbers at the location this year is due to the animals practicing social distancing.

Concerns have been raised about the deer in Nara Park as they face a gap in their daily diets due to the lack of tourists around to feed them rice crackers. However, the Foundation says the deer have plenty of other food sources to survive on in the park.

It remains unclear whether the number of deer gathering at the spot this year is indicative of a drop in the overall deer population. However, without further investigation, there’s a lot regarding the matter that remains uncertain.

Our reporter Masami is determined to conduct her own research into the matter by recording deer numbers and observing dates, times and places in the park on an annual basis. You could say she’s well on her way to becoming the “Deer Whisperer of Nara”, and honing her abilities with frequent consumption of the city’s deer poop ice cream.

Photos © SoraNews24
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