Deer Conservation – Protecting Nara's Sacred Messengers
As soon as you step into Nara Park, you will see wild deer grazing under the trees and crossing the road like regular pedestrians. Since around the eighth century, the deer in Nara have been viewed as divine messengers of the gods, and sacred entities. But scientists recently discovered that Nara’s deer really are unique. Thanks to centuries of protection, Nara’s deer are genetically distinct from others in the area. Researchers believe that the Nara Park deer population split from their ancestors more than 1,400 years ago, around the time that Kasuga Taisha Shrine was established. The shrine’s protection helped rare ancestral populations of sika deer survive in Nara Park while surrounding populations disappeared due to historical hunting and settlement.
Deer in Nara Park
The vast public parklands that spread out from the foot of Mt. Wakakusa encompass the grounds of Todai-ji, Kofukuji, Kasuga Taisha Shrine, and Nara National Museum. There are over 1,000 deer living in the park. They are wild, but will cautiously approach humans, and they enjoy eating the special crackers called “shika senbei”, that are sold around the park. These crackers are specially made to be safe for the deer and are the only food you can give them.
Unfortunately, there have been incidents of deer dying from ingesting plastic bags and other trash. It is important to dispose of all trash properly and avoid littering. There is actually no need to feed the deer, as they can survive on food found naturally in the park, such as grass, acorns and leaves.
Rokuen center for protecting deer
This center to protect the local deer was opened near Kasugataisha Shrine by the Nara Deer Preservation Foundation in 1892. Staff at Rokuen rescue and treat sick and injured deer, protect pregnant deer, and dehorn male deer to prevent injuries. They also conduct protective measures such as preventing traffic accidents and littering and improving public awareness of issues surrounding the deer. Visitors to Rokuen can learn about the life cycle of Nara’s deer, and see deer that are being protected at the center. In June you can see new fawns. To help Nara’s deer population co-exist peacefully with each other and with humans, the antlers of the aggressive males are ritually cut each autumn at Rokuen. This is a unique opportunity to see a traditional practice, unchanged since the Edo period.
Nara’s deer seem to appreciate classical music. The practice of Shikayose, or “deer calling” was first held in Nara Park in 1892 to commemorate the opening of the new Rokuen deer preservation center. A member of the Nara Deer Preservation Foundation summons the local deer with a passage from the fifth movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral” played on the French horn. The music attracts deer from deep within the forest, and they are given acorns as a reward. Shikayose is held on several mornings in July and December on the south side of the approach to Kasuga Taisha Shrine.