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‘As tragic as Bambi’s mother, but slower and more painful’ – how plastic is killing Japan’s sacred deer

Greg Dickinson

Every year millions of tourists travel to Nara, Japan’s former imperial capital, to pay a visit to the sacred deer that roam its expansive park.

The idea may sound like the stuff of childhood fantasies. However, there is an untimely end awaiting some of these deer – as tragic as Bambi's mother's death, but slower and more painful.

Their demise will not come from the wrath of a man with a gun, but rather from swallowing plastic left behind by visiting tourists.

Six Nara deer have died since March due to plastic consumption. And we’re not talking about the odd straw getting lodged in the throat; an autopsy showed that one deer had 4.3 kilograms of plastic congealed in its stomach. But this isn’t the only manmade hazard threatening the deer here in Nara – 29 died in traffic-related deaths in 2018.

I travelled to Nara Park to see just how bad the plastic waste situation really is, and to find out why so many are dying on the roads. Would tourists be doing the deer a favour by keeping away?

The Nara deer can be overwhelmingly pushy when it comes to feeding time Credit: Getty

My taxi pulled in on a busy dual carriageway and, as I got out of the car, the first thing I saw was a road sign warning drivers to look out for deer. On the other side of the road was the entrance to the park, where I counted a few dozen of the usually shy, forest-dwelling creatures roaming about.

I crossed over and it was immediately clear why so many deer are losing their lives to traffic accidents. Tourists here pay 150 yen (around £1) for a packet of ‘senbei’ snacks made from rice bran so they can feed the animals, give them a pat on the head and get that obligatory Instagram shot. However, many of these stalls have set up right by the park entrance, meaning the highest concentration of deer congregate just beside a fast-moving road.

Tourists aren’t helping matters, either. I watched a man hold a pack of senbei crackers above his head, coaxing a group of deer inches from the road and waiting for them to bow so they would receive their reward. This is a trick that the deer have learnt over the years, and one that most visitors demand before offering a treat. One of the deer had its hind legs in the road as cars zoomed past. Another, on the other side of the road, sauntered over to get in on the action – luckily, a bus patiently waited for it to cross, this time.

This won’t always be possible. While the deer are accustomed to contact with humans, a loud bang or a sudden movement can startle them. At one point a woman dropped her suitcase and a group of deer darted off in all directions.

29 Nara deer died from traffic accidents in 2018 – it's easy to see why Credit: Jeremy Holden

Covering an area of 1,240 acres and established in 1880, Nara Park is home to over 1,200 wild sika deer. According to legend, the god Takemikazuchi-no-mikoto appeared on the nearby Mount Wakakusa riding a white deer. From then on the deer were considered sacred and killing one was an offence punishable by death until 1637. Even today they are protected, with designated ‘national treasure’ status – in 2010, a man was sentenced to six months in prison for killing one with a crossbow.

Over two million tourists visited Nara in 2018 – approximately the same number as Iceland received in the same year. And the delight they bring to those visitors is beyond doubt. I watched as families, toddlers and a newly-wed couple giggled in glee as the elegant deer nudged their hands and asked for treats. Fun, yes, but the ethics of encouraging such behaviour does sit slightly uncomfortably.

At one point a deer approached me to see if I had any food – pushing its nose into my hand. I didn’t, so it snuffled around on the ground and I was alarmed to see what it was interested in – a plastic ring pull. Fortunately the deer kept walking. But as I looked closer I saw that the ground was littered with tiny bits of perfectly swallowable plastic. Straws, a coffee stirrer, a sweet wrapper, a semi-circular rubber nugget that looked like it had come off a bicycle or a pram. My back pocket was full of such detritus within minutes.

The deer have grown rather comfortable around Instagramming tourists Credit: Getty

There’s danger to human life here, too. As tourist numbers continue to rise, park officials have put up signs in English, Chinese and Japanese giving tips on how to safely feed the deer. Deer-related injuries have quadrupled since 2013, rising from 50 to a record high of 200 in 2018. Of those injured, 80 per cent were non-Japanese.

After an hour or so in the park I felt like I had seen enough, so I made my way to the station to hop on a train to Kyoto, half-an-hour north of here. It was on this walk that I saw a doe standing on her own, with a white plastic bag stuffed in her mouth as she struggled to chew it down. I went over and grabbed it from her mouth, which she struggled against for a moment before allowing me to remove it. As I walked away, she was still chewing on something.

Steps are being taken to resolve the problem. The Nara Deer Welfare Association has developed environmentally friendly packaging made from natural materials, so at least the senbei snacks are not contributing to the plastic waste issue here. But, as anyone who has spent any amount of time in Japan will know, plastic is everywhere.

Some coffee shops serve all their drinks – not just takeaway – in disposable cups. Just about every meal is accompanied by a wet towel in a small plastic wrapper. In a Family Mart you will be handed a packet of chewing gum in a plastic bag.

Like many countries, Japan has a plastic problem. Even if it is one of the cleanest nations in the world, the material will inevitably find its way onto the ground – particularly in an area that receives thousands of foreign visitors every day – who perhaps do not have the same anti-littering mindset as the Japanese do.

So, yes, the deer may be kawaii (cute), and that Instagram shot may rake in the likes, but until the Nara Park officials employ strategies to keep the deer away from the roads, and – a much bigger project – until Japan has figured out how to tackle its excessive reliance on plastic, the sacred deer in Nara Park will continue to die at the hands of humans.