Numerous plastic bags were found in the stomachs of more than half of the 14 wild deer that have died in Nara Park in western Japan since March, prompting the local government to take action to protect them.

According to the Nara Deer Preservation Foundation, nine deer have died after swallowing plastic bags. Masses of tangled up plastic litter and packets of snacks were retrieved from their stomachs, with the heaviest amount weighing 4.3 kilograms.

Their habit of eating plastic bags is likely to be linked to the fact that tourists take food from such bags to feed the deer, according to Rie Maruko, a veterinarian who belongs to the animal conservation group.

Deer learn that such bags contain food, or are tempted by the smell coming from the discarded packages, leading them to accidently eat the objects, Maruko said.

More than 1,000 deer roam in the vast park and tourists are allowed to feed them with digestive and sugar-free deer crackers, or "shika sembei" in Japanese, which are sold in nearby shops and do not use plastic wrapping.

But some tourists are apparently giving the deer other snacks.

(Masses of tangled up plastic litter and packets of snacks retrieved from a deer's stomach.)
[Photo courtesy of the Nara Deer Preservation Foundation]

Deer, usually feeding on grass, are ruminants and have a four-chambered stomach. If their first chamber is filled up with nondigestive objects, they are not able to digest them or discharge them from their bodies.

As a result, these deer may have died from malnutrition and weakened immune systems, among other factors.

"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."

The Nara prefectural government plans to investigate the situation and step up efforts to warn visitors not to feed deer anything other than the specific food, such as by putting up signs with illustrations, officials said.

Members of the foundation, meanwhile, regularly patrol the area to protect the deer, designated as national treasures, from accidently swallowing discarded plastic bags or any other items that are not safe to consume.

Related coverage:

Cleanup of plastic bag litter in Nara aims to protect deer