Innovative Solution Saves Deer in Japan

A businessman develops an edible bag that won’t harm curious deer looking for a snack.

Dec 24, 2020
Innovative Solution Saves Deer in Japan | A businessman develops an edible bag that won’t harm curious deer looking for a snack.

Nestled at the foot of Mount Wakakusa in Japan, scenic Nara Park looks like something out of a fairytale. The 1,600-acre site contains traditional temples, quaint footbridges, and botanical gardens. But Nara Park’s signature attractions are the 1,000 spotted Sika deer that wander the grounds.

Thousands of tourists flock to the region each year to see the deer, and stalls throughout Nara Park sell shika senbei (deer crackers) to visitors who like to feed them. Sadly, plastic bags and wrappers left behind by tourists have resulted in the deaths of a number of deer in recent years.

One local businessman, Hidetoshi Matsukawa, has made it his mission to protect the symbol of his community. A cosmetics wholesaler by profession, he decided to take a proactive step in solving the issue after hearing that scores of deer were eating plastic litter.

Matsukawa told The Asahi Shimbun that the deer, who have been considered sacred for centuries, are an important resource for Nara. He explained that protecting the deer means protecting the economy of Nara.

Determined to develop an edible bag that wouldn’t harm curious deer who mistake the bag for food, Matsukawa reached out to two acquaintances. Takashi Nakamura, head of a local paper manufacturing company and Kiyoshi Ogawa, a senior executive at a design firm, agreed to help Matsukawa create a non-toxic bag that could serve as an alternative to plastic.

The trio worked on the project for a year, and their efforts culminated in approval from Japan Food Research Laboratories. The institute found that the bags contained no toxic elements and were safe for human consumption, suggesting that they also would not harm deer, according to The Asahi Shimbun.

The bags are called shikagami, which means deer paper. Composed of rice bran and leftover pulp from milk cartons, the product also helps repurpose material that would have otherwise gone to waste.

“We learned rice bran are mostly wasted in the process of rice polishing," Matsukawa told CNN. “So this paper helps to reduce that waste as well.”

Nara’s Todaiji temple, a major tourist attraction, and local banks bought around 5,000 deer paper bags for 100 yen (some 95 cents) during the initial rollout of the product. Acknowledging that the higher price of the bags may hinder widespread adoption, Matsukawa told CNN that the price per bag will drop as more businesses commit to using the product.

Aside from being safer for the deer, shikagami bags are eco-friendly and biodegradable. At a time when countries around the globe are issuing bans on plastic bags due to their negative impact on the environment, shikagami are a critical shift away from single-use plastic bags in Japan.

The success of this initiative shows that out-of-the-box solutions are not just for the high-tech world. An innovative approach to rethinking an everyday object such as a plastic bag has led to a safer environment for both local animals and future generations.

Despite having no previous experience in conservation, Matsukawa was able to translate his passion for the deer into tangible results which benefit both the animals and the community. His efforts to protect Nara Park’s treasured wildlife provides an important lesson in how grassroots environmental activism can make a huge difference.

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LAUREN MARCUS, CONTRIBUTOR
Fascinated by storytelling since childhood, Lauren is passionate about the written word. She’s a freelance writer who has covered everything from the latest developments in tech to geopolitics. When she’s not writing, Lauren is interested in genealogical research and family folklore.