The Dangers of Deer: How to Keep Your Nara Visit Safe

Over 200 visitors to Nara Park were injured by deer in 2018, with more than 60% of cases occurring while feeding them deer fodder. Officials warn visitors against treating the deer like pets.

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Enjoyable Encounters Between People and Animals

Cat cafés and other “animal encounter” establishments are recently growing in number, but Nara Park, a popular tourist destination in Nara Prefecture, pioneered the concept.

Countless deer saunter around the park, and visitors love to interact with the animals, which are designated as a protected species. Many of the deer are accustomed to humans, and their dewy eyes and soft fur appeal to the tourists, be they from within Japan or abroad.

Nara Park deer.

Recently, however, the number of deer-related injuries among visitors has been rising. According to prefectural officials, as of January 31, 2019, fiscal 2018 (which runs through the end of March) had seen a record 209 visitors injured by deer, a fourfold increase compared with fiscal 2013.

Some of these 2018 instances resulted in serious injury, with eight people—five of whom were foreigners—suffering bone fractures or worse.

Calls for Greater Caution

Local vendors offer deer fodder to tourists looking to interact with the animals.

How did this situation arise, and what should visitors do to avoid injury? We asked an official from the prefectural government’s Nara Park Office for insight into this deer dilemma.

“The cause seems to be the growth in tourist numbers,” says the official. Although Nara Park does not record visitor numbers, the city of Nara as a whole has seen steady visitor increases in recent years. “A high proportion of visitors to the city go to the park, so we assume that the rise in tourist numbers has affected the injury rate.”

Often the injuries are minor, notes the official—bitten fingers and the like suffered while feeding the deer—but there have been instances of people caught in scuffles between the animals.

The majority of serious injuries, such as bone fractures, occur from September to November, which is the rutting season. At this time, bucks become aggressive and may collide with people while pursuing a mate. Does, meanwhile, may become aggressive in order to protect their fawns during the birthing period, from mid-May to July. Special care should be exercised around the animals in these months.

Causes of Deer-Related Accidents

Note: Data for April 1–December 31, 2018.

Does the reason for this growing number of foreigner injuries lie in their disregard for the rules of behavior? “No,” says the official. “The high proportion of foreigners injured, particularly Chinese, is most likely due to the growth in their number. We also see Japanese visitors flouting the rules, so we can’t state simply that foreign tourists are at fault.”

Most important to note, says the official, is that the deer in Nara Park are untended—they are wild animals. “Tourists from abroad may be more inclined than Japanese to misconstrue that the deer are tame,” he admits. The city urges visitors to take greater care, and to not approach the animals as though they were pets.

Preventing Injuries with the “Deer Sign”

What should visitors do to avoid injury? People with deer fodder can be alarmed at how many deer it attracts—they should feed the deer quickly and avoid teasing them. “Holding onto the fodder or lifting up your hands to keep it away from the animals annoys them,” notes the official. “If you sense danger, the best course of action is to throw the fodder on the ground.”

It is also important to show the deer your empty hands once you have given away all of the fodder. They see that there is no more to eat, and move away. Park officials refer to this as making the “deer sign.”

Making the “deer sign.”

The Nara Prefectural Government is also taking action. It has warning signs posted in 40 locations throughout the park, and is using digital signage and online videos to alert visitors. The Nara Deer Preservation Foundation and Nara Deer Supporters Club also arrange volunteers to patrol the park.

Of particular concern recently is tourists engaging in risky behavior as they take photographs to post on social media—for example, by putting their face too close to the deer, or posing their children alone beside an animal. Nara Prefectural officials have also heard of tourists straddling deer, holding fodder in their mouths to try to give the deer, and feeding them with nonapproved food like snacks they have brought along.

“While feeding the deer is a highlight of a visit to Nara Park,” says the city official, “it’s also a cause of injuries. Tourists should be careful of bucks during rutting and does during the birthing season, when they become aggressive and pose a risk even to adults. We hope that tourists will realize that these animals are wild and must be approached with caution.”

A warning sign displayed in Nara Park.

Preventing people’s injuries is important, of course, but it is also crucial to protect the deer in their native habitat. The recent increase in injuries seems linked to the growth in tourist numbers and the popularity of social media, but officials hope to raise awareness among visitors that the deer are wild and require caution, so that interacting with them can remain a part of the Nara Park experience into the future.

(Originally published in Japanese on FNN’s Prime Online on February 6, 2019. Translated and edited by Nippon.com.)

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