Nara Park’s Deer in the Age of the Coronavirus
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Return to Nature
Humans are not alone in having their lifestyles turned topsy-turvy by the pandemic. In Nara Park, the ubiquitous herds of deer that roam the grounds have had to adapt as tourists stay away. Prior to the virus outbreak, visitors eagerly pampered the animals with handouts of “deer crackers” and other fodder. However, with tourism coming to a near halt in Japan’s ancient capital, as well as across the rest of the country, these easy sources of tucker have disappeared, and hungry deer are now reverting to their natural foraging instincts.
The Nara Deer Preservation Foundation and a research team from Hokkaidō University recently surveyed the some 1,300 deer that inhabit the park to determine how the sudden decline in tourists has affected the animals’ behavior. In June, researchers tallied deer in the central area of the park, which usually sees the highest concentration of people, during the day and at night to determine what portion of the population was present. By comparing these figures to a similar count conducted in January of this year, prior to the Japanese government barring most overseas visitors, they found that since the onset of the pandemic the percentage of deer present during the daytime had fallen from 71.9% of the overall herd to 50.2%, and that the nighttime ratio had also decreased from 56.5% to 34.9%.
In the wild, deer typically spend the night in forested areas and move to open, grassy spaces during the day to forage. This is also true for the semitame herds that call Nara Park home. However, the Hokkaidō University team notes that over time the number of animals remaining in the heavily trafficked central part of the grounds even after dark has gradually ticked upward, suggesting that the abundance of tourist-provided fodder was overriding natural instincts. With significantly fewer people visiting the park, though, deer were reverting to previous nocturnal habits and were also spending more time grazing in areas adjacent to the park.
Taking a Load Off
The survey also showed that deer are adopting a slower pace of life and are resting more. The ratio of animals seen lying down in grassy areas during the January headcount was 19.3% during the day and 37.9% at night. In June, the percentages rose to 59.1% and 55.2%, respectively. A significantly higher number of deer were also spotted grazing leisurely alongside their reposed comrades.
Deer that are resting typically bring up previously swallowed food, or cud, to chew it again, a process called ruminating. The animals tend to quickly gobble down food when grazing, and cud-chewing further breaks down vegetable matter so it can be better digested and more nutrients absorbed. Researchers were encouraged by the increase in deer taking time to rest as it suggests that animals are less stressed from human interaction, something that can be expected to improve the overall health of herds in the park.
Taken as a whole, the survey suggests that as the pandemic keeps visitors away from Nara Park, deer are gradually reverting to a more natural way of life. While many experts view this as a positive development, it raises concerns about how it might impact individuals that have grown accustomed to interacting with people. Professor Tatsuzawa Shirō, who led the team from Hokkaidō University, shed some light on what researchers are learning.
Nature Knows Best
It could be argued that the deer in Nara Park are not wild animals, considering their urbanized surroundings and frequent interaction with people. However, Tatsuzawa insists that as a protected species, they are left to their own devices. “The deer are free-ranging, wild animals,” he explains. “They roam where they want, forage when they feel like it, and reproduce completely independently of human intervention.”
He recognizes, however, that herds have come to depend on humans to a great degree, much to the detriment of the overall wellbeing of the population. “There are more old and sickly deer than you would typically find in a forest ecosystem,” he notes, adding that the presence of weaker animals raises the risk of disease for the entire group. He sees the return of natural behavior as an opportunity for animals to recoup and revitalize. “It’s much better for the herd that individuals rebuild their strength and stamina on their own rather than having to be taken in and nursed back to health.”
The flocks of tourists will eventually return, though, making it highly likely that deer will again grow dependent on people unless authorities put measures in place to protect the autonomy of herds. “This is a real risk,” states Tatsuzawa. “We’ve also seen animals moving outside the park with greater frequency, which raises the danger of friction with human society, including damage to private gardens by grazing groups and deer being struck by cars.”
He stresses that a consensus has yet to be forged on how best to approach the issue, but he points to two main trends over the last thirty years that have molded the current relationship of deer and people. “You’ve seen animals grow tame as tourism at the park increased,” he explains. “Visitors today no long keep their distance, but instead treat them much like pets.”
Nara Park itself has also changed. “It is now operated more like other urban parks rather than as a nature preserve as originally intended,” Tatsuzawa notes. Burgeoning tourism is again partly to blame, but the growing deer population has also forced authorities to more directly manage herds.
Tatsuzawa says that measures like controlling the animals’ diet with artificial feedings and even culling unhealthy individuals would help improve the fitness of the population, enabling deer to remain in a wilder state. However, he insists that such steps would be difficult to maintain over the long term and that any solution will require reducing interaction with humans to a bare minimum. This includes limiting feedings by tourists to encourage deer to forage on their own and increasing the amount of natural vegetation in the park, giving animals shelter to graze and raise young free from interference by people.
“It’ll be a process of trial and error to come up with an approach that works,” Tatsuzawa says. He warns that some groups of deer will migrate into surrounding neighborhoods and that the support and understanding of residents will be critical in forging a plan that safeguards the wellbeing of the population while keeping property damage to a minimum. “Luckily we have years of knowhow, such as building deer fences, to rely on.”
The efforts and expertise of people like Tatsuzawa and his team are essential to creating a sustainable environment where deer can exist in a wild state. “Nara Park is a World Heritage Site,” stresses Tatsuzawa. “We humans have a duty to preserve these unique and protected animals.”
(Originally published in Japanese on FNN’s Prime Online on June 19, 2020. Translated and edited by Nippon.com.)
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