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Nara Park deer bowed less during COVID surge: researchers

A deer is seen bowing to a tourist holding "deer crackers," at Nara Park in the city of Nara on May 18, 2023. (Mainichi/Fumika Kiya)

NARA -- Nara Park's iconic deer bowed less when they were fed crackers by tourists at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, researchers have found, as they apparently forgot the habit due to a lack of human contact.

    Deer at the park in Japan's ancient capital are typically fed special "deer crackers" sold at shops on the grounds, and are known to bow to the people feeding them. The number of those bows declined when coronavirus infections surged, according to a group of researchers including Nara Women's University Faculty of Science professor Yoichi Yusa and doctoral student Haruka Uehara.

    The team looked at how the stalled human activities due to the pandemic affected wild animals. Researchers focused on the bows that Nara Park deer make, a habit the animals acquired as they interacted with humans, and checked the number of bows at three locations including near Todai-ji temple's Nandai-mon gate, a popular deer-feeding spot. The team utilized data on deer numbers in the park and their behavior accumulated by Nara Women's University since before the pandemic.

    A deer is seen bowing to a student on a school trip holding a "deer cracker," at Nara Park in the city of Nara on May 18, 2023. (Mainichi/Fumika Kiya)

    Between September 2016 and January 2017, the deer bowed an average of 10.2 times when they were shown the crackers. The figure declined to an average 6.4 times per animal between June 2020 and June 2021, during the pandemic. Even during the pandemic years, bow numbers went up and down in tandem with the rise and drop in the number of tourists at the park.

    The number of deer visiting the three observation points increased between 2015 and 2019, when inbound foreign tourist figures surged, with an average 167 deer hanging around those spots in 2019. That fell to 65 in 2020.

    Professor Yusa, an animal ecology expert, explained, "The stagnation of human activities immediately affected deer's behavior. This is probably because they were not rewarded with deer crackers for bowing, and even forgot the behavior during the time they didn't see people. If tourist numbers rise in the future, the deer will bow more."

    He added, "The coronavirus pandemic has provided an opportunity for us to review the relationship between humans and wildlife."

    (Japanese original by Hirohito Ueno and Fumika Kiya, Nara Bureau)

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