The animals, revered as messengers of the Shinto gods, have been damaging Nara farmers’ crops.
The city of Nara has a number of attractions with cultural, historical, or religious significance, such as Todaiji Temple and its Great Buddha statue. However, what the city is arguably best known for is the herds of deer that wander freely through Nara Park and the city streets.
Not only do the deer delight visitors by adorably greeting them and serving as motifs for frozen desserts, they also have a deep connection to the Shinto faith. Shintoism holds that there is divinity in many aspects of nature, and Nara’s deer are considered to be messengers of the gods. Under the auspices of Nara’s Kasuga Taisha Shrine, the deer have enjoyed status as a protected species within the city limits, but as of last week Nara’s Prefectural government has begun a capture and culling program to reduce the animals’ population within the city.
Over the past few years, local farmers say that the deer have been causing increasing levels of damage to the crops growing in their fields and rice paddies. As a countermeasure, deer traps, in the form of large cages (roughly as high as a man’s waist), have been placed in a number of areas in Nara City and baited, with the aim of capturing, and culling, deer.
The authorities have set a limit of 120 deer that may be culled between now and the end of the year. However, even that is too many in the opinion of the Japan Bear and Forest Society, which is based in Hyogo Prefecture. Speaking to the media, the society’s chairwoman, Mariko Moriyama, said that the organization feels that “the needless killing is a crime,” and says that countermeasures should instead focus on installing more effective fences around farmland where the deer have been causing damage.
However, some farmers feel that culling is the only way to stem the damage to their livelihoods. One asserts that the deer in his district are able to leap as high as two meters (6.6 feet), implying that fences would have to be higher than that to be effective. Another expressed his reluctant resignation to the culling as necessary by saying “I know they are messengers of the gods, but they don’t seem like it up here in the mountains” and sharing his observation that the deer have become increasingly aggressive in recent years.
Despite the criticism from the Japan Bear and Forest Society, the Nara Prefectural Government says it has no plans to alter its decision on culling the animals (which means our April Fool’s Day joke isn’t an option they’re considering). However, the authorities have said that no deer will be culled from the city’s famous Nara Park, nor from anywhere in the city center. Those in charge of the program also assert that there is hardly any migration of deer between the areas in which the animals will continue to be protected and the rural outskirts where the culling will take place, so if you snapped a picture with a cute deer on your last trip to Nara, odds are it’ll still be alive and well for some time to come.