Goodwill of strangers now threatens to do the deer more harm than good. 

One of the most popular tourist sites in all of Japan is Nara Park in Nara Prefecture, where people can walk amongst free-roaming deer that cross at pedestrian crossings and bow to tourists in return for senbei rice crackers.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, however, tourist numbers have plummeted, and with international travel restrictions leaving the park emptier than it’s ever been, the deer have been hungry for rice crackers usually fed to them by visitors. 

▼ Sold by vendors on the park grounds, Shika Senbei (“Deer Rice Crackers”) are a popular way for tourists to interact with the animals.

With a large number of deer seen wandering far from the park in search of food and others looking gaunt, concerned locals have recently been spotted giving the animals scraps of food. However, the Nara Deer Preservation Foundation, who helps to care for the animals, says the deer are perfectly fine without handouts from strangers, and have installed signs around the park asking visitors not to feed the deer any food other than rice crackers.

According to the foundation, a number of visitors have been giving the deer sweets and vegetable scraps to supplement the animals’ diets following the drop in tourists. This can do them more harm than good, though, and the foundation is looking to put an end to the practice by implementing a “Feeding Prohibition Campaign” from 1-28 February, patrolling the grounds at night to ensure there is no improper feeding and setting up signs at 16 places in and around the park to prohibit people from feeding the deer anything other than rice crackers.

▼ The news quickly spread online, with photos showing the signs being put in place.

The foundation also shared the signs on their official Twitter account, showing what types of food are prohibited: vegetables, bread, bentos, and snacks like potato chips.

They also shared information about the deer to put everyone’s minds at ease, saying the animals have been living wild at Nara for over 1,300 years. The deer can safely survive on grass, leaves and acorns found inside the park, and food like bread and snacks are not part of their natural diet.

According to the foundation, deer crackers have been used by tourists in the park since the Edo Period (1603-1868), and are fine for the animals as a supplement to their natural diet.

Hiroyasu Takeda, director of the Nara Park Administration Office, reinforced the importance of keeping the animals on their usual diet, saying:

“Deer are wild animals and will not starve even if the number of tourists decreases. We’d like people to stop giving the deer food that isn’t deer senbei.”

Given that a number of deer have been showing signs of dependence on rice crackers, with some eating up to 200 a day, the absence of tourists actually presents a good opportunity for the animals to return to a more healthy natural diet. There are already promising signs that their health is improving, as a recent study showed deer droppings have become firmer and darker compared to before the pandemic, which indicates they’re eating more grass than usual.

So next time you’re in Nara and wanting to give the deer a bit of your lunch in return for a bow, don’t forget that the deer have been surviving without handouts from humans for centuries. Although the foundation does help them out in the dead of winter with shikayose, the annual calling of the deer with acorns and a French horn.

Sources: Yomiuri Shimbun via Goo News via Otakomu
Photos © SoraNews24
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