NARA - It’s getting ever more crowded in the ancient capital of Nara as record numbers of two-legged visitors encounter record numbers of four-legged residents, creating concerns about the health and safety of both groups.
Last month, a survey by the Nara Deer Preservation Foundation, which looks after the deer, showed there were 1,360 in the Nara Park area. It was the largest number recorded since the foundation began counting deer in 1955.
That year, there were only 378 deer in Nara Park. Over the following decades, the population grew rapidly at first and then steadily as various steps were taken by the city to control it after farmers complained their crops were being damaged.
The foundation recorded 1,226 deer in Nara Park last year, and the record number this year is likely due to increased patrols by foundation members, as well as efforts by the city, prefecture, and foundation to reduce traffic accidents in the vicinity that kill or injure them.
The rise follows jumps in Nara’s tourism. In late July, Nara officials announced that over 16.3 million people had visited in 2017, compared with 15.5 million in 2016.
While the total is short of the record 18 million who came to Nara in 2010 for the 1,300th anniversary celebration, it marks a steady increase. In particular, there were 1.99 million visitors from abroad, up 26.3 percent from 2016. Two-thirds who spent at least one night in Nara were from China, but city tourism centers also reported increases in inquiries from Malaysian, American, Australian, French and Spanish day-trippers.
With ever-more people and deer in the park these days, the city has made efforts to protect both. Signs in English and Chinese where deer crackers are sold warn against feeding them human food. Flyers in both languages are also handed out warning against teasing them or trying to ride them.
“It is critical that as more people come to Nara, they realize these deer are not tame. They are not household pets, but wild animals and they need to follow the rules and take precautions. For themselves as well as for the deer,” according to Yoshitaka Ashimura, the executive director of the Nara Deer Preservation Foundation.
While volunteers from the foundation patrol the park, looking out for people who aren’t following the rules, the increase in tourists, many who come only for the deer, has already led to complaints about bites. Plastic garbage has also been found in the stomachs of dead deer.
Thus, how the city balances the need to protect the animals with the desire to encourage more tourists to see them is likely to prove Nara’s greatest international, and domestic, tourism challenge in the years ahead.