Sacred deer in Japan’s Nara park keep dying and it’s because they’re eating loads of plastic bags thinking it’s food. While deer in the park—located in Japan’s former imperial capital and a place thronged by millions of tourists—are protected as a natural national monument, the increase in the number of tourists and the plastic bags they carry their snacks in have raised some serious issues. And now, 14 deer have died in the park since March.
This first came to light when a female deer died at the deer protection site on May 12, and a murky, messy mass of plastic bags and snack wrappers weighing 4.3 kgs was found in its stomach. According to the Nara Deer Preservation Foundation, which is involved in protecting deer at this park, plastic bags and other rubbish in the stomachs of nine deer were found after the foundation carried out autopsies on the 14 deer.
There’s a high chance this happened because visitors keep feeding them snacks from plastic bags, so the deer have now been conditioned to believing these plastic bags contain food inside them. They also eat snack wrappers that have been callously thrown away, since the aroma of the food still lingers.
"It's difficult to notice by looking at them because of their fur, but if you actually touch them, some of them are so thin that they're just skin and bones," Rie Maruko, a veterinarian at the foundation told The Straits Times. "In one case, a deer lost more than 10 kgs of weight."
While the stalls at the park selling senbei snacks (Japanese rice crackers) use environmentally friendly packaging developed by the Nara Deer Welfare Association, tourists keep bringing their own plastic waste and don’t think twice before throwing it around. That’s why plastic bags, ring pulls, cups and bottles have all been spotted in the park.
The park plays host to about 16 million people annually, and park officers on patrol duty have found that this influx had led to increased littering. And probably since the deer aren’t used to such large numbers, incidents like the deer biting people have also increased, presumably a way for the animal to protect itself. The number of such incidents has now spiked to 227 in 2018, with eight visitors succumbing to serious injuries including broken bones.
Established in 1880, the five square kilometres Nara Park houses over 1,200 wild sika deer. According to legend, the god Takemikazuchi-no-mikoto showed up on the nearby Mount Wakakusa riding a white deer, and ever since then, the deer were considered sacred. In fact, killing one was an offence punishable by death until 1637. Even today they are protected, and given a designated 'national treasure' status, with people being sentenced to prison for killing them.
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This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.