Tending to the city’s ‘holy envoys of the gods’

by Tomoko Otake

A recent news report that a pregnant Nara Park deer was killed by a crossbow bolt fired by a restaurateur from Wakayama Prefecture who was strapped for cash and looking to sell the meat was a sobering reminder of just how vulnerable the 1,000-plus deer living in the park really are.

Although there is nowhere else in Japan where wild deer come into such close contact with humans, perhaps they fit in with the central Nara landscape so naturally that many people — locals and tourists alike — pay little attention to the lives of these “holy envoys of the gods.”

Nara City native Chiharu Fukumoto, 28, is one who most certainly does pay close attention to the city’s herd. But even as one of 11 employees of the nonprofit conservation group the Foundation for the Protection of Deer in Nara Park, she says that while she was growing up, she, too, paid the deer little heed.

That outlook changed when Fukumoto spent nine months in Australia on a working-holiday visa in 2007 — and she realized for the first time how special her hometown is and how little she knew about the ecology of its deer.

Fukumoto, who joined the foundation 2 1/2 years ago, has learned a lot about deer conservation since then, both from her colleagues and through her own experiences of rescuing and taking care of sick and injured animals.

Indeed, an average of 350 deer — a third of Nara Park’s entire population — die every year, including around 130 killed in traffic accidents.

Now, in addition to her hands-on work, Fukumoto gives many presentations on deer at schools and other venues to let more people know about the dangers facing the sacred animals.

While the hype of Nara’s 1,300th- anniversary celebrations has brought hordes of tourists to central Nara this year, Fukumoto likes the slow pace of the city.

“I like the way all the shops are closed after 8 p.m.,” she said. “I also like the way merchants are not so profit-minded. Unlike Kyoto, where temples sit right next to tall office buildings, so many temples here blend in nicely with the sprawling greenery of Nara Park. But what if deer disappeared from the park? It would become just an ordinary, boring park.”