Credit: GG Photographer Jenny Dimitrialdi

Edible bags saving Japan’s deer

By Katrina Williams

Plastics can be detrimental to wildlife, but a Japanese entrepreneur may have found a solution.

Deer in Japan are held to high regard. Shinto beliefs suggest that they are messengers of the gods, and due to their religious status there are multiple areas in Japan where they are free to roam. You can find them on the grounds of some shrines, and in the city of Nara, the first-ever capital of the country.

Though its days of serving as capital are long past, Nara’s streets are still flush with subjects; not just people, but deer, too. Over 1,000 wild sika deer live in the city, localised to Nara Park, and visitors are encouraged to feed them by use of crackers made of rice bran and grain. They’re polite – to a point – but tourists should expect to have a few deer head-butts headed their way if they’ve got any snacks left in their bags. Despite their occasional bad behaviour, they are considered national natural treasures.

However, there is an issue that disrupts the perfect harmony between human and deer. In 2019, between March and June, nine deer died after ingesting plastic bags. It’s thought that they had most likely eaten leftover rubbish from tourists including both wrappers and bags made of plastic, and other inedible materials. Unable to eat with the plastic blocking their stomachs, the deer most likely died of malnutrition.

Nara has now introduced edible bags, specially designed so that if they are mistakenly ingested by the deer it won’t do any damage to their stomachs or put their lives in any risk. They’re made from the pulp of rice bran and milk cartons, meaning that if any tourists continue to leave their rubbish behind – which they are sure to do – the deer won’t be placed into any possible harm.

The creator of the bags is an entrepreneur named Hidetoshi Matsukawa, employed by local souvenir wholesale agent Nara-ism. He collaborated with local design firms and paper manufacturers to create the product, and alike to the crackers commonly fed to the deer (known as shika senbei, literally translating to deer crackers) gave the material that makes up the bags the nickname “shikagami” (deer paper). They’re being sold to multiple businesses in the city in order to run tests, and as more get involved with the project the prices of the bags will further fall when purchased wholesale. Not only will the edible bags hopefully help the deer, but they will also serve as a good usage for leftover rice bran waste from rice polishing.

Edible bags don’t solve everything for Nara’s deer, however. With the Covid-19 pandemic understandably cutting down the number of tourists visiting the city, deer who are usually fed by visitors have to scavenge further to find food, putting them in danger of finding rubbish further outside their usual roaming grounds of the park and its surrounding streets. Then comes the risk of cars and other vehicles hitting them if they venture onto the roads around Nara. 

But it’s a start – and when Covid-19 settles around the world, hopefully, visitors to the parks will bring the deer back their favourite snacks so that they no longer need to go scavenging. Did you know that the deer themselves have learned how to bow to visitors offering them crackers? Once this is all over, maybe it’ll be time to book a trip to the park and meet some of the famous animals yourself.


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