Japan's Sacred Nara Deer Found Dead After Swallowing Plastic Waste: 'They Were Very Skinny…I Was Able to Feel Their Bones'

Japan's famous Nara park is home to more than 1,000 free-roaming sika deer which have been designated a national treasure and are even considered sacred by some.

Visitors often feed the deer but now authorities are urging people to stop giving them unauthorized snacks after several of the animals were found dead with significant quantities of plastic waste in their stomachs, Kyodo News agency reported.

Local conservation group, the Nara Deer Preservation Foundation, say that of the 14 deers that have died since March, nine had plastic waste in their system, including plastic bags and snack packaging. In one of the deers alone, researchers found 9.5 pounds of plastic in the digestive system.

Rie Maruko, a veterinarian who works for the conservation group, says the deer may be accidentally eating the plastic bags or packaging discarded by visitors because they contain food or smell like food.

This problem may be exacerbated by the fact that the deer have become accustomed to eating food that visitors bring them from the outside, ignoring park rules which state that the animals can only be fed with special sugar-free deer crackers—known as "shika sembei"—which can be purchased from local shops and are sold without plastic packaging.

"Though deer are herbivores, some visitors in Nara give them food and snacks taken out of plastic bags," Maruko told Newsweek. "Then deer begin to eat people's food and even plastic bags or wraps because they smell like food. As a result, we find that deer eat plastic waste on the ground and sometimes steal plastic bags visitors are carrying."

Deer have complex digestive systems including a stomach with four chambers. While this organ useful for digesting the grass that they normally feed on, it poses a problem when the animal swallows non-digestible objects. If the first chamber becomes full with these objects, the deer cannot remove them from their bodies. This can lead to malnutrition and other problems because they cannot take in enough real food.

"The deer that died were very skinny and I was able to feel their bones," Maruko said. "Please do not feed them anything other than the designated shika sembei."

In the wake of the recent deaths, the local government has said it will take measures to help protect the deer. These will include the installation of more signs, for example, warning visitors not to feed the deer any unauthorized food.

In addition, members of the Nara Deer Foundation already conduct patrols in the park in an attempt to stop the deer swallowing non-digestible objects.

Nara Park—located around 20 miles east of the city of Osaka—is one of the oldest parks in Japan, established in 1880. The deer—which are believed to be divine messengers—were designated national treasures in 1957, The Guardian reported.

This article was updated to include additional comments from Rie Maruko.

Sika deer, Nara Park
In this picture taken on December 7, 2018 a tourist feeds a deer at Nara park in Nara. BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images