The coronavirus is affecting the health of Japan’s deer population at Nara Park. 

The city of Nara in Nara prefecture is famous for its free-roaming deer population, who’ve been known to cross at pedestrian crossings and bow to tourists in Nara Park in return for senbei rice crackers.

The animals’ love for gathering around tourists who feed them rice crackers has been well-documented over the years, but now that the tourists have largely disappeared due to travel restrictions imposed during the coronavirus pandemic, it appears the deer’s dependence on senbei is more serious than first thought.

According to a recent news report, roughly 13 million tourists usually visit Nara Park every year, and the number of rice crackers sold annually amount to approximately 20 million. With around 900 deer living in the park, excluding the 400 that are housed in the “Rokuen” deer shelter, this means each deer usually eats more than 60 rice crackers per day.

Shika Senbei (“Deer Rice Crackers”)

Each senbei weighs about three to four grams (0.1-0.14 ounces) and is considered a snack for the deer, who eat about five kilograms (11 pounds) of grass a day. However, the nutritional value of a rice cracker is higher than grass, making them extremely attractive to the animals. This encourages them to seek out the rice crackers to such an extent that some of the animals are said to have become dependent on them.

While a number of deer have adapted to the decrease in available rice crackers and switched to eating more grass due to the drop in tourists, some of the deer appear to have lost weight and are now roaming further away from the park, pointing to signs of a serious rice cracker dependence.

According to a recent survey conducted by The Nara Deer Preservation Foundation (N.D.P.F.) and Assistant Professor Shirow Tachizawa from Hokkaido University, it was found that the number of deer staying inside the nature-filled environment of Nara Park is decreasing.

In January this year, before the drop in tourists, 71.9 percent of the deer population was recorded in the park during the day, but in June this dropped to 50.2 percent. Nighttime numbers in the park were at 56.5 percent in January and 34.9 percent in June — a roughly 20-percent decrease in both cases.

While the number of deer in Nara Park has decreased, the number of deer sitting on the grass during the day has increased from 19.3 percent to 59.1 percent. Deer, like cows, digest nutrients through a system called rumination, which requires a lot of rest time, so this increase is a good sign as it indicates these deer are eating more grass and returning to a more healthy natural diet.

There have also been signs of improvement in the deer droppings, which have become firmer and darker compared to before the pandemic, when they were often loose. Like humans, deer need less refined food and more natural nourishment to maintain healthy levels of intestinal bacteria.

While a lot of the deer seem to be enjoying improved health without tourists, others are now worryingly thin due to their dependence on rice crackers. Assistant Professor Tachizawa, who specialises in the study of wild animals, believes these deer may have become addicted to senbei.

According to a previous survey, some deer ate more than 200 rice crackers a day, leading the Assistant Professor to speculate that these deer may have become so accustomed to receiving rice crackers that they are now finding it hard to adapt to the changes. 

It seems that the coronavirus pandemic is affecting not only the lives of humans, but the lives of the deer at Nara Park as well. Here’s hoping more of the senbei-dependent deer are able to kick their addiction by mimicking the behaviour of their grass-eating relatives as soon as possible.

Otherwise the N.D.P.F. may have to step in to supplement the diet of the deer with more frequent acts of shikayose, the annual calling of the deer with acorns and a French horn.

Source: Sankei Shimbun via Hachima Kikou
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