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Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2008

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A stag in Nara oversees his harem of grazing hinds WINIFRED BIRD PHOTOS

Nara's cute, destructive deer

Though sacred to some, have the ancient capital's photogenic herds outgrown their habitat?


Special to The Japan Times

Nara's Kasugayama Forest Reserve doesn't look like a landscape in crisis. Under the 300-hectare old-growth woodland's brilliant green canopy now turning to its autumn glory, trees and shrubs of every shape and size grow in shady abundance, with nearly 1,500 of the trees spanning more than a meter in diameter at chest height. A 1971 study counted more than 1,200 species of plants growing in the forest, which was protected from logging and hunting for more than 1,000 years thanks to its status as the holy grounds of Kasuga Grand Shrine. Today, the forest is protected both as a Special Natural Monument and a World Heritage site.

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One of Nara Park's estimated 1,200 sika deer — descendants of those that, according to legend, carried the deities to Kasuga Grand Shrine in 709 and 768 — stands at the gate of Todaiji Temple.

But when Yuri Maesako, a professor at Osaka Sangyo University's Graduate School of Human Environment, visits Kasugayama Forest Reserve (KFR) as she has done countless times in the last 20 years, she sees a habitat in peril. The results of her studies over the last decade, she says, indicate that the diversity of plants there is declining and nonnative species are increasing their hold. Even more alarming, the number of young native trees — the forest's next generation — is declining.

"If the situation continues like this, the original evergreen broadleaf forest will not be preserved," says Maesako, who holds a doctorate in ecology.

The culprit, according to her and others studying the area, is quite simply Nara's world-famous and highly photogenic herd of deer.

Long revered and protected as messengers of the deities, the city's approximately 1,200 sika deer (Cervus nippon Temminck) have roots stretching back at least to Nara's founding in 710. In 1957, they were made a government- designated Natural Monument, and today they are at least as much a symbol of the city and staple of its tourist economy as they are sacred animals.

But according to Maesako, the herd has exceeded the size that the grassy part of its main habitat, Nara Park, can support. As a result, the deer are turning for an increasing amount of their food to KFR, which makes up the eastern part of the park (just outside the city limits).

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Yuri Maesako from Osaka Sangyo University, who insists that deer are imperiling the Kasugayama Forest Reserve

Although the deer prefer the nutrient-rich Zoysia japonica grass that covers the park's flatter areas, they can digest a wide range of plant material and, as there is not enough grass to support them, says Maesako, they strip bark from mature trees in the forest and eat young tree shoots, low-growing plants and low branches. This leads to what scientists call a "deer line" — an absence of growth below the height that deer can reach.

However, Chiharu Fukumoto, a staff member of the Nara Deer Preservation Foundation, a government-funded nonprofit organization that handles the care of deer in Nara, disputes the claim that they have outgrown their habitat.

"There's enough grass," she says. "Deer have been living in Nara since people founded the city over 1,000 years ago. I don't think they are responsible for trees in the old-growth forest dying. Rather, the reason Nara Park is such a beautiful environment is because of the deer."

Pamphlets from the foundation point out that deer provide natural fertilizer and mowing for the park. However, none of the organization's 11 employees specifically studies the forest.

Sorting out the competing claims about the carrying capacity of the park is complicated by a lack of historical data. The foundation carries out a census of deer in the grassy areas of Nara Park each year, but these records only go back to 1945. Several scientific studies done in the 1980s indicated a maximum carrying capacity for the grassy areas of between 800 and 1,000 deer. The current herd is at the high end of that range.

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Harumi Torii from Nara University of Education, who challenges some estimates of the park's carrying capacity for deer

Harumi Torii, a specialist in wild animal management and environmental education at Nara University of Education, who studies the city's deer, says there were several flaws in those studies. He is currently working on a more accurate estimate of carrying capacity. But regardless of such arithmetic, Maesako says the strongest argument for overpopulation is in the forest.

"More than anything, the lack of young plants and evidence of bark-stripping points to overpopulation. If there's this much of a red light, we've got to take this seriously," says Maesako. "It's already late to be taking action."

Her studies have documented both a decrease in the number of native tree saplings and an increase in plants that are unpalatable to deer. A 2002 study by Maesako, Satoshi Nanami of Osaka City University and Mamoru Kanazaki of Kyoto University recorded a large number of two species of trees not originally found in the forest — Podocarpus nagi (Broadleaf podocarpus) and Sapium sebiferum (Chinese tallow tree). P. nagi, a conifer native to other parts of Japan and first planted near KFR about 1,200 years ago, was found throughout shady areas. S. sebiferum, a deciduous broadleaf tree native to China that was introduced to Nara Park in the 1930s, was found mainly in gaps in the forest canopy opened up by typhoons.

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