Wild deer in the city of Nara have long been loved by tourists and locals alike, and have been protected and cared for under law. Some 1,200 deer inhabit Nara Park, pleasing visitors with their mostly harmless, tame nature.

Some of the wandering herd, however, have plagued local farmers by inflicting severe crop damage. But any talk of limiting their numbers has been taboo, because deer across the city are designated as a natural treasure under the Cultural Properties Protection Law, and also because they are considered to be “the holy messenger of god” — due to their habitat’s proximity to the 1,200-year-old Kasuga Grand Shrine.

On Tuesday, the Nara Prefectural Government put an end to years of controversy over the issue, with a panel of experts concluding that it will redefine areas where deer must be protected. Capturing and culling of deer in other areas of the city will be permitted for the first time, though the prefectural government must submit a detailed plan in advance to the Cultural Affairs Agency, according to a Nara government official.

Under the new zoning policy, which will come into effect later this year, the city will be divided into four areas: “the priority protection zone,” covering all of Nara Park, where officials will make daily patrols to monitor and treat injured deer; “the semipriority protection zone” surrounding the park, where patrols will be less frequent but deer will still be protected; “the borderline zone” where some deer will be protected but others found damaging farmers’ crops will be captured; and “the management zone” where deer can be captured and killed.

Prefectural government official Kazutomi Mukai told The Japan Times on Thursday that the new rules will not affect the 1,200 deer that live in Nara Park, stressing that it will only target animals that wander into mountainous areas and eat vegetables and rice.

Mukai added that the prefecture’s previous attempts to control the deer population ended in failure due to fierce public opposition.

“Last time we tried to take action, which was a few years ago, our office was flooded with phone calls from people protesting it,” Mukai said. “Many of them were those from outside the prefecture,” who voiced surprise that Nara officials would even think about killing any of its deer.

Crop damage inflicted by deer has been a problem nationwide, forcing many rural municipalities to take measures to control local populations in recent years. The agriculture ministry estimates a third of the ¥20 billion agricultural damage caused by wild animals in fiscal 2014 was due to deer.

“It has sort of been a taboo for a long time,” Mukai said. “But we want to underscore the fact the measure is also intended to protect the existing deer in Nara Park, and the number to be captured will be very small.”

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