Japan to thin famous deer

Nara’s iconic herd eating crops, hurting tourists

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TOKYO — The ancient Japanese city of Nara is famous for its old Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, but also for its present-day deer.

Every year, hordes of tourists flock to Nara, south of Kyoto, to experience the peace of the historic sites and the rambunctiousness of the 1,200 or so deer that freely roam through the park in the middle of these sites.

However, the number of deer in Nara is about to get significantly smaller.

Nara Prefectural Government is embarking on its first cull of the deer, which were designated a natural treasure by the Japanese government in 1957. The deer are said to be the divine messengers of the Kasuga Grand shrine, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of Nara’s main attractions.

The deer are regulated under the Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties but Nara authorities applied to the Cultural Affairs Agency in Tokyo for permission to cull the deer because of the agricultural damage that they have caused. The deer are blamed for eating rice, bamboo and vegetable crops.

Permission was granted and the authorities have started setting out box traps to try to capture 120 of the deer on the eastern fringes of the park.

The deer will then be killed — a detail that is curiously missing from most Japanese newspaper reports.

Nara prefecture’s park office had received some complaints from locals about the cull, said Yuichiro Kitabata, deputy head of the office. But the deer being killed were not the ones in the park but outside it, he said.

Under a new zoning policy introduced last year, Nara park will be considered a “priority protection zone” while the area around it will be a “semi-priority protection zone” where deer will still be protected.

But in the “borderline zone,” deer found damaging farmers’ crops can be captured and killed and deer anywhere else can be captured and killed under any circumstances, the Japan Times reported last year.

Local officials such as Kitabata have been stressing that the deer in the park are safe — but this presumes that the deer know the zoning boundaries.

“Nara has a long history of people living side by side with deer in harmony,” another government official told the Asahi Shimbun.

The deer in and around Nara park pose a danger to people as well as crops. Bambi they are not.

Having grown used to hordes of tourists wanting to feed them special deer crackers that are on sale all around the park, they can be aggressive.

A record 121 people were injured by deer in the park last year, according to local government figures.