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A decrease in visitors to Nara Park due to the novel coronavirus pandemic has brought about changes in the behavior of deer based in the park in western Japan.

Nara Park deer, usually fed with rice crackers by sightseers in the central area of the park in the city of Nara, are moving to the park's wooded area for tree nuts and other food in line with the decline in the number of food-bearing visitors.

Also, they are increasingly spotted in city areas. Some shops have reported that their products were eaten by deer from the park.

Some 1,300 deer, which enjoy special protection as a national treasure, live in the 511-hectare park. The park usually has some 13 million visitors annually.

According to researchers from Hokkaido University, the number of deer reported during daytime in June in the park's central area was around 30% below the January level before the spread of the virus.

By contrast, the number of deer moving to the wooded area started rising in February, when the COVID-19 outbreak began to spread in the country.

"Deer that had depended on rice crackers from tourists turned their eyes to natural plants and left the central area," said Hokkaido University assistant professor Shiro Tatsuzawa.

The Nara Municipal Government said that the number of Japanese visitors to the park during the coronavirus state of emergency between April 16 and May 14 plunged 85% from a year before. Foreign tourists to the city decreased to nearly zero in April.

Residents' lives have also been affected by Nara Park deer's behavior changes.

"Some 30 pots for pansies and other flowers have been damaged" by deer, a flower shop manager in his 50s said, adding that he saw deer around his shop near the park almost every day in July and August.

According to the Nara Prefectural Government, the number of consultations about damage by deer totaled 36 between April and October, already exceeding the 24 cases throughout the past fiscal year that ended in March.

Tatsuzawa said that Nara Park deer "are returning to their natural state, eating food found in the natural environment without depending on humans."

Meanwhile, he warned that weak deer may die if the number of tourists to the park does not recover, as food in the wooded area becomes scarce in winter.

"An increase in deer going to towns may raise the number of traffic accidents," Tatsuzawa also said.

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