Leopard scare again at Tirupati walkway sparks debate on conservation, man-animal conflict

So far, the forest officials have caught six leopards around the walkway. Three were later released and three were kept in permanent captivity.

ByBhaskar Basava

Published Jun 03, 2024 | 8:00 AM Updated Jun 03, 2024 | 8:00 AM

One of the pedestrian routs to the Tirumala temple.

The recent sighting of two leopards near the walkway to the abode of Lord Venkateswara in the Seshachalam Biosphere Reserve area has once again brought back tragic memories of Lakshita, besides panicking devotees.

Lakshita, aged six, was merrily proceeding along the pedestrian route from Alipuri when a leopard disappeared into the darkness with the girl around 8 pm on 11 August 2023. Her mutilated body was found in the bushes the next morning.

The incident occurred a month after a leopard had attacked a three-year-old boy in Tirumala.

The girl’s relatives then blamed the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD) for its failure to keep the devotees safe. However, the YSRCP MLA from Kovur, Nalappareddy Prasanna Kumar Reddy, held her parents responsible for the tragedy. He accused them of being negligent.

The leopard that attacked Lakshita was later captured and transferred to the Tirupati zoo. After the incident, six rosetted big cats in the route’s vicinity were trapped, and three of them were translocated. The remaining three have been kept in the zoo.

After the August last tragedy, the TTD initiated a slew of measures to keep the trekking path safe. It included arming pilgrims with sticks, security escort, installing cameras, and clearing the area of garbage.

It also prohibited pilgrims with children aged below 15 years from trekking to the Tirumala temple after 2 pm.

However, on 20 May, pilgrims on the route saw two leopards, too close for comfort.

Related: Leopard suspected of killing girl captured

Temporary solutions

A TTD official told South First that the situation has become normal ever since the six leopards were removed from the area.

Though the TTD was still offering sticks to pilgrims, they don’t have many takers. “Security guards are escorting them (the devotees) in batches,” the official said, requesting anonymity.

He blamed the eateries along the route for predators getting closer to pilgrims. “The food waste attracts animals like deer, boars and dogs.  Wildlife such as sloth bears and leopards follow these animals. Therefore, restrictions have been imposed on eateries and littering,” he said.

District Forest Officer Satish Reddy said his department has initiated several measures to curb man-animal conflict in the region.

While providing sticks, installing cameras, managing garbage, and increasing security, were short-term measures, a planned elevated pathway could offer a permanent solution, he told South First.

However, he skirted a question on the recent spike in leopard sightings.

Related: TTD beefs up security along Alipiri footpath route

TTD rationale questioned

Animal welfare activist Mare Shyam had asked TTD the rationale behind providing sticks to devotees.

IUCN has classified the Indian leopard (Panthera pardus fusca) as 'Near Threatened'. (Wikimedia Commons)

IUCN has classified the Indian leopard (Panthera pardus fusca) as ‘Near Threatened’. (Wikimedia Commons)

“I am still awaiting its response,” he told South First.

He opined that sticks could provoke aggressive carnivores like leopards. A retired forest range officer, Satya Vinnukoti, backed Shyam’s statement.

“Animals like leopards should be dealt with carefully. They often change locations,” he said.

The former officer said temporary measures such as using drums to scare away the animals could be implemented. “However, afforestation and increasing the population of herbivorous animals could be a lasting solution,” Vinnukoti said.

J Manjunath, Honorary Secretary of the Wilderness Club, an NGO, saw three possibilities that might have drawn leopards to the pedestrian pathway.

“Unlike tigers, leopards are not territorial. Leopards move from one place to another in search of food,” he told South First.

He highlighted three reasons for the recurring leopard attacks: Provocation, search for food due to deforestation and dwindling prey, and the possibility of them becoming man-eaters.

Related: Fourth leopard captured near Tirumala

Clear warning

Animal welfare activists ruled out the provocation and the possibility of them becoming man-eaters. They said that deforestation caused by forest fires and smuggling of red sanders were driving herbivores and carnivores closer to human-inhabited areas within the reserved forest zone.

Researchers pointed out the dwindling vegetation in the Seshachalam hill ranges.

“Seshachalam hill ranges represent a wide array of diversified habitats. Heavy biotic interference, primarily pertaining to the over-exploitation of wild plant resources, is leading to an alarming loss of species populations in the area,” researcher MV Suresh Babu of the Department of Botany at Sri Krishnadevaraya University, warned in his paper.

In another overview paper by Shoba Rani from the Padmavathi Manila University in Tirupati underscored the consequences of the destruction of habitats.

“Clearing large areas of land results in the destruction of species dependent on those habitats. An example is the Kudremukh Iron Ore Company Limited, which mined iron ore within the boundaries of the protected Kudremukh National Park,” she noted.

“Due to the loss of habitat, more and more species of fauna have started to venture into human habitation, causing conflicts between humans and wildlife,’ she added.

Also Read: ‘Shakti’ sacrificed at altar of upper-caste hegemony

Rising leopard population

The Status of Leopards Report – 2022 by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, noted that the population of leopards in Andhra Pradesh increased 15 percent to 569 in 2022 from 492 in 2018.

However, it highlighted that a significant threat to the leopard population in Andhra Pradesh was human-leopard conflicts in Tirupati.

It raised concern over such threats, including road kills.

Even as the report said of an increased population, environmentalists raised questions over proportionate measures initiated to protect the species.

“Is there an increase in their prey, such as deer? How many waterbodies have been added, and what afforestation efforts have been undertaken,” it asked.

Also read: Andhra Pradesh forest officials capture leopard that attacked boy

Striking a balance

Ravishankar Thupalli, an international forestry specialist and community mobilisation expert, underscored the need for prey-predator balance.

“Besides elevated path or fencing, the ideal way forward for peaceful coexistence would be to maintain the prey-predator balance,” he told South First.

Thupalli, with experience in conservation and sustainable management of forest biodiversity, succinctly explained the presence of leopards near the pathway.

“If there is grass, there are herbivores. If there are herbivores, there are carnivores, and thus, leopards,” he said.

“To avoid man-animal conflicts, we should create an environment that fosters a prey-predator relationship, along with other measures, he added.

(Edited by Majnu Babu).