Firmly clasping his six-year-old daughter Keerthi by her elbow, Chennai-based Kumaran Avudaiyappan, 40, walks barefoot. Cautiously, he and his family take the 2,000 steps leading to Tirumala, translated to ‘holy hills’ in Tamil, in Andhra Pradesh’s Tirupati district. Here, devotees believe Venkateswara, a Vishnu avatar, lives. The devotional ‘Govinda Hari Govinda… Venkataramana Govinda…’ blares over the audio system installed throughout the 10.5 km-long trekking route, meant to inspire the pilgrims’ progress.
This is a route Avudaiyappan has done every year for the past 30 years or more. He and Keerthi are two among the 25,000 pilgrims who walk up daily. Along the slow path that can take up to 5 hours to climb with a child—in his youth, he could do it in 3 hours—there are always people, sometimes 30 to 40, sometimes up to 100 at peak ‘traffic’ time during the day, but as the evening wears on, the crowd peters out. Avudaiyappan’s eyes dart about despite it being the afternoon, watching the forest that surrounds the steps to what believers feel is close to heaven.
A week ago, a leopard had killed Lakshita, a six-year-old child near the 7th mile point (at about 11 km by road) on the ghat road that runs parallel to the old trekking route that starts at Alipiri. This was the first-ever fatal attack on the hill. The girl, from Nellore district’s Pothireddypalem village, was walking ahead of her relatives—five adults and four other children—at about 7:30 p.m. When she felt hungry, they told her to go ahead to a shop to get some biscuits, but when they reached there, she was nowhere to be found. They asked the security team for help, but no one could find her. The next day, her mauled body was found in the forest.
Her grandfather, Srinivasulu, was devastated. He always greeted her with surprise gifts on her return from school, he recollects. “A life is lost in our family. We don’t want any promises, but expect the government to take concrete steps to prevent such incidents in future,” was his curt response to the State’s ex gratia announcement.
Overnight, orders were issued that children are not be allowed after 2 p.m. Andhra Pradesh’s Minister for Environment, Forests, Science & Technology Peddireddy Ramachandra Reddy promised an ex gratia of ₹5 lakh to Lakshitha’s parents. And vendos selling fresh fruit and vegetables along the way were temporarily banned.
In quick succession
This wasn’t the first incident this year. On the night of June 22, at the same 7th mile point, a sub-adult leopard clenched B. Kaushik’s neck in its jaws and tried to flee. The boy’s parents and security guards chased it for 100 metres when it dropped the 5-year-old and ran into the forest. Kaushik was discharged after two weeks of treatment at the hospital run by the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD) that administers the temple and its precincts, including 3,025 hectares of forestland. His parents, B. Pulikonda and B. Sireesha called it a “miracle” and attributed the survival of their child to “the glory of Lord Venkateswara”. Scientists say it was probably because it was not a full-size adult leopard.
On the way up the hill, there are signs that ask motorists and trekkers to beware of wild animals. In fact, on August 14, a sloth bear was sighted at Srivari Mettu, the second (steeper) trekking route leading to the top of the hill, not more than 4 km long, but suitable only for seasoned trekkers who know the route.
Abutting the hills, towards the rear part of Sri Venkateswara University College of Engineering, a leopard was caught on camera moving in the shrub jungle around, causing panic among students and staff. Wild animals are regularly sighted in Balaji Nagar, a residential locality on the Tirumala hills where people have lived for generations.
The lower portion of Tirumala, from Alipiri to Gali Gopuram, about 1,000 steps into the journey, constitutes rocky terrain. The Gali Gopuram to Sri Narasimha Swamy temple is a relatively flat area. From ‘Mokalla Mitta’ to the top of the hill is steep and hilly again. ‘Mokalla’ means ‘knees’, and ‘mitta’ means ‘steep’ in Telugu, an allusion to the knee pain a pilgrim may get on the final leg up.
The 7th mile horror
It is the middle stretch, mostly flatland, that is frequently criss-crossed by leopards. The 7th mile point, which has been designated a ‘risk zone’ in forest parlance, is where the ghat road that takes motorists down and the trekking route intersect close to the thick forest. After the first arduous stretch, most pilgrims rest here. This is also the spot where a number of motorists stop to worship at the 60-foot-high statue of Hanuman installed here in the late 1970s.
At the 7th mile which sees 70,000 to 90,000 people traverse daily, in vehicles and on foot, there are about 25 eateries of the 100-odd along the way up. While the leftover food invites deer and dogs, the smell of fruit peel brings in the sloth bears, say forest officials. A rough estimate available with the TTD Health Department shows that 2-3 tonnes of food waste is cleared from the footpath every day, and while the hill is mostly plastic-free (only glass bottles are allowed), there is a lot of food waste that lies around, uncleared.
This is also the place where the TTD once maintained a deer park. Despite warnings from the TTD, pilgrims offer food to the wild deer. Hawkers capitalising on the pre-pooja religiosity invite pedestrians to offer carrots, cucumber, and fruits to the deer.
“Our families are dependent on pilgrims, and such a step will impact our livelihood,” says a worried Amudala Nalini, a fruit vendor, in response to the TTD’s ban on the sale of fruits on the trekking route. She considers changing the product line temporarily till the ban is lifted. The hawkers are not scared of wild animals, because until now hardly any have been sighted in the vicinity.
When deer sightings on the ghat roads witnessed a spike in recent years (as evident from the movement of herds during the pandemic-induced lockdown in 2020), it was hailed as a positive spurt in wildlife, but surprisingly, it did not make alarm bells ring in the minds of Forest Department officials. The movement of prey close to the trekking route is sure to attract predators from the thickets.
According to TTD’s deputy conservator of forest, A. Srinivas, the forest area that comes under their domain is home to 5-10 leopards, but the number could be more than 100 in the entire Seshachalam hill ranges, most of which does not fall into their area of operation.
Pattern across Rayalaseema
Immediately after the two incidents, the Forest Department trapped three leopards. Two were kept in captivity, and the third was let back into the wild, some distance from habitation. The department has also installed nearly 300 camera traps along the forest area that capture the movement of animals, which helps the officials understand the pattern.
Though the animal sightings in the Tirupati-Tirumala hills have hogged the national limelight, there have been numerous instances across the Seshachalam and Nallamala forests spread across the Rayalaseema region comprising the southern and central Andhra Pradesh over the last couple of months.
Two leopards were allegedly poisoned to death by poachers in Madakasira forest of the erstwhile undivided Anantapur district in early August. The carcass of a leopard was identified in Chittoor district’s Ramakuppam forest, bordering Karnataka and Tamil Nadu towards the end of July.
A sloth bear and a leopard were sighted on the route leading to the Srisailam hills in Nandyal district, nestled in the Nallamala forest. The sloth bear was captured in the cage set up by the forest department a week ago, while the leopard remains elusive. Animal movement has been observed at Upper Ahobilam, another pilgrim centre in Andhra Pradesh.
Out of the wild
“At any given time, hundreds of armed smugglers are in the forest. Their mere presence is chasing the animals out. The government has failed to curtail the smuggling menace”G. Bhanuprakash ReddyFormer TTD Trust Board member
Political parties have raised a hue and cry over the alleged presence of the endemic red sanders hardwood smugglers. “At any given time, hundreds of armed smugglers are in the forest. Their mere presence is chasing the animals out. The government has failed to curtail the smuggling menace,” says the Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson G. Bhanuprakash Reddy, formerly a member of the TTD Trust Board.
Red sandalwood was traditionally used by the people who live here freely—in everything from furniture to a threshold—until its value was discovered about 30 years ago.
“Forest officials are seizing the dumped red sanders logs but are not focussed on catching the smugglers. The precious wood from the forest spread across Tirupati, Chandragiri, Piler, Nagari, Gangadhara Nellore, Rayachoti, Rajampeta, Badvel, and Railway Kodur assembly constituencies [in southern Andhra] are crossing the State’s porous borders towards Chennai and Bengaluru, from where they are smuggled abroad,” alleges N.B. Sudhakar Reddy, the official spokesperson of Telugu Desam Party.
Opposition parties blame the TTD and State Forest Department for not waking up to the possibility of further attacks. After the first attack, officials from both held a joint meeting, but no tangible action came out of the discussion.
Dilemma over fencing
Meanwhile, Environment Minister Ramachandra Reddy has announced that after a report from TTD authorities, the entire trekking route will be fenced off to protect against animal attacks.
However, retired forest officials called the announcement a knee-jerk reaction, as it is impossible to fence the entire trekking route that traverses rocky terrain, road crossings, and temples en route. “Imagine if a wild animal sneaks into the fenced area and comes face-to-face with pilgrims. There will be attacks and counterattacks, with no option for either to escape,” an official cautioned, requesting anonymity.
Animal activists also feel that such a fence prevents the movement of animals from one side of the forest to the other and could disturb the ecosystem.
“The forest should have enough green cover, perennial water bodies, and a sufficient prey base as well as diversity in prey in order to retain the carnivores”Jakka AmarnathAnimal Warriors Conservation Society
Environmentalists say the focus should be on making the forest a safe habitat for animals. “The forest should have enough green cover, perennial water bodies, and a sufficient prey base as well as diversity in prey in order to retain the carnivores,” says Jakka Amarnath, who heads the Wildlife and Conservation wing at Animal Warriors Conservation Society, a non-profit organisation. “Another strong reason for the animals to move out is the absence of mating partners,” he says. His work has been in tiger conservation projects across Uttarakhand, Telangana, and Andhra Pradesh.
In a bizarre twist, the TTD’s trust board chairperson Bhumana Karunakar Reddy announced that sticks would be given to every trekking pilgrim on the ghat road to act as a tool of self-defence to ‘shoo away’ wild animals. Though the suggestion emanated from the forest department, the announcement was met with ridicule. Not perturbed by social media trolling, they have decided to start distributing sticks.