In a world where human activities have left an indelible imprint on ecosystems, conservation of species and natural landscapes has become an urgent global concern. Despite such trends, traditional taboos rooted in religious beliefs have sometimes served as effective mechanisms for species conservation. Socio-cultural systems have established sacred natural sites as refuges with their rich biodiversity. Nevertheless, research on species within these sites unveils conflicts between social values ​​and the imperatives of nature conservation.

The case of Nara in Japan, where the sacred sika deer has been protected for over a thousand years, illustrates the complexities of managing wildlife under cultural protection. Initially, deer populations were confined to traditional sanctuaries, but over 50 years of strict conservation policies have led to a rapid increase in their numbers, forcing them to move out of these areas. . Additionally, over the past 20 years, deer populations have increased in the surrounding areas, which were previously almost deer-free. These include deer born outside sanctuaries, which are now encroaching on traditional protected areas.

For local farmers, preventing agricultural damage from these growing numbers is a major challenge. However, due to legal constraints and psychological resistance, rioting, a common practice in other regions, is difficult to implement in Nara. As this delicate balance between traditional conservation and modern livelihoods is experienced, Nara City has divided Nara City into Protected, Management and Buffer Zones, implementing wildlife management strategies. However, despite these efforts, the deer population continues to grow, calling for a more scientific approach and a comprehensive plan to deal with the growing deer population.

In response to this critical issue, researchers at Fukushima University conducted a genetic study and examined the complex genetic makeup of sacred deer populations. “Our primary objective was to uncover potential impacts on the distinct genetic identity of sacred deer, which offers important insights that go beyond genetics. The study has broader implications for exploring wildlife management challenges and conservation. was to solve the broader problems of,” explains Associate Professor Shing. Kaneko from Fukushima University’s Faculty of Symbiotic Systems Science, who conducted the study with her colleague Dr. Toshihito Takagi and his team. Their results were published in Journal of Conservation Science and Practice.

The team began by collecting samples from nine locations in Nara City’s districts A, B, and D, which included a total of 165 deer samples. Genetic analysis focusing on mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) control region and nuclear simple sequence repeat (SSR) markers revealed a spatial pattern in the distribution of genetic variation in the studied deer population. In the conserved region, a single mtDNA haplotype labeled S4 was dominant. However, within the administrative region, multiple haplotypes were present.

In terms of nuclear SSR, higher genetic diversity was observed in the management area than in the protected area. Analysis of genetic composition and admixture revealed two distinct clusters, with cluster 1 dominant in the protected area and clusters 1 and 2 mixed in the management area. “The protected area, dominated by the exclusive S4 mtDNA haplotype, reflects their historical isolation. In contrast, the managed area reflects the establishment of genetically distinct populations, which are interbreeding and possible replacements for sacred deer. from the common deer,” observes Dr. Takagi.

The context of coexistence and interbreeding presents challenges in deciding conservation policies, creating a dilemma between preserving the sacred lineage of deer and allowing interbreeding to avoid mixing.

The urgency to resolve these conflicts is underscored by concerns such as increased damage to agriculture, loss of genetic specificity, and potential disease spread. The study emphasizes the need for consensus and agreement on values ​​among stakeholders based on scientific analysis, considering the broader social, economic, environmental, and cultural conditions. Public health concerns, including zoonoses and tick-borne diseases, further highlight the importance of careful management in this unique context, where the preservation of a population with a millennia-long history is at risk.

“Until now, research results from population genetic analysis have rarely been used in the field of Japanese wildlife management. However, with the publication of our genetic research on ‘Nara’s Deer,’ familiar to Japanese people “Yes, genetic analysis will likely be used more widely. To examine the origin of animals of unknown origin and the admixture of populations,” explains an optimistic Dr Kaneko.

The results of this study will not only inform conservation and management strategies for Nara’s sacred deer, but also contribute to the global dialogue on balancing human-wildlife interactions in the face of rapid environmental change.