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Our beautiful planet: Japan's bowing deer

Melanie Hall
April 5, 2018

Surprisingly tame, Sika deer have lived alongside humans in the ancient Japanese city of Nara for centuries. But their growing numbers have led to some feeling the human-deer relationship has soured.

DW eco@africa - Sika deer in Nara, Japan
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Everett Kennedy Brown

For creatures revered as messengers of the gods, the deer of Nara, Japan, certainly appear to know how to take advantage of their holy status. The Sika deer have free rein to roam around Nara, one of the country's oldest cities, entering its temples and strolling through the town center.

Unusually for deer, the creatures are very tame - if not downright cheeky - around humans, and their boldness wins them the attention of tourists, who lavish them with "deer biscuits" bought from stands around Nara Park.

Little wonder, then, that the deer - said to be the divine emissaries of the Kasuga Grand shrine, a UNESCO World Heritage site – have become a main attraction in their own right. The deer have even learnt that bowing to humans often elicits these snacks, as seen in this YouTube video above – making the creatures a hit on social media. 

DW eco@africa - Sika deer in Nara, Japan
Visitors can buy special crackers to feed to the deer - the panel gives tips on how to safely feed the animalsImage: picture-alliance/Maxppp/Kyodo

But some deer have eschewed bowing in favor of a more aggressive approach to staking their claim to the crackers, a mixture of wheat flour and rice bran. A total of 180 people were injured by deer in the park in the year up to March 2018 - up from 118 the previous year, according to local government figures. Most of the injuries happened while feeding the deer.

Faced with a growing number of injuries from deer bites, Nara Park's authorities recently issued tips on feeding the creatures.

DW eco@africa - Sika deer in Nara, Japan
The city of Nara is home to 1,200 free-roaming deerImage: Imago

Although most of the injuries weren't serious, one person suffered a broken bone and needed stitches. But the number of injuries would probably be even higher if it wasn't for an annual ceremony held in the city where the antlers of mature bucks are sawn off.

Nara has been populated by the Sika deer for centuries – and the creatures there are now protected by law, making it illegal to harm them – although elsewhere in Japan they are seen as a pest and culled.

But their protected status has seen their numbers rise – there are more than 1,200 now living in the city. This has been taking a toll on the region's agriculture, causing $54 million of damage each year.

DW eco@africa - Sika deer in Nara, Japan
The deer are considered sacred by Japan's Shinto religionImage: Imago

Being regarded as a national treasure hasn't stopped the authorities on clamping down on the deer’s freedoms. Last year, the city decided to allow the use of humane traps to capture any deer found wandering too far out of town. The move follows complaints from local people, especially farmers, that increasing numbers of deer were eating their crops.

Tourism in Nara continues to grow – its main park, home to temples and shrines, welcomes around 13 million visitors annually, helped in no small part by the deer.