As the January sun sets, Yasin Juneja, 39, a forester with the forest department sets out in his official camper van from the range forest officer’s (RFO) office at Savarkundla in Gujarat’s Amreli district.
Leaving a plume of dust behind, the van traverses a dirt track between cotton fields and reaches a stretch of Pipavav-Surendranagar railway track in Amrutvel, a village 11 km away from Savarkundla in eastern part of Amreli district. The earthen embankment is the highest point in this part of Shetrunji river floodplains, which are part of the revenue beat of Gir (East) wildlife division’s Savarkundla range.
Satisfied that the embankment is clear of vegetation — meaning better visibility for forest department’s trackers and loco pilots in spotting lions venturing close to the railway line — he drives to Khadkala village. There, he halts at a 10-metre-tall watchtower along the track.
The anxiety writ large in his movements is mirrored by his colleagues in the Gir (East) and the adjoining Shetrunji wildlife divisions, which cut across Saurashtra region’s Amreli and Bhavnagar districts. Fatal collisions of seven Asiatic lions with trains at night time in Savarkundla and Rajula ranges of Shetrunji wildlife division over the past six months have set alarm bells ringing.
A rail track, a port and the lion kingdom
Seven lions were killed in six months — between July 21, 2023, and January 21, 2024 — after they were run over by trains on the Pipavav-Surendranagar section. The casualties assume significance, considering that nine lions died on the tracks in an entire decade (between April 2013 and March 2023), according to forest department data.
The Pipavav-Surendranagar track connects the busy Pipavav Port on the coast in Amreli’s Rajula taluka with the rest of the country. But the track runs through Savarkundla and Rajula ranges where lions, the endangered species of big cats, have settled since early 2000.
The series of lion deaths on this track started in 2013-14, in the backdrop of the population of these mega carnivores shooting up from 304 in 1995 to 411 in 2010. Their numbers swelled to 523 by 2015.
Ravish Kumar, the Divisional Railway Manager of Western Railway’s Bhavnagar division, was unavailable for a comment. However, a railway officer said, “Twenty trains ply on this line on an average, mostly after dark.”
That, say forest officers, is also the time when lions, who are nocturnal animals, become active. “Lions are more active at night and increased train movement at night increases the risk of accidents,” says Aradhna Sahu, Chief Conservator of Forests (CCF), Junagadh wildlife circle that covers Gir (East) and Shetrunji divisions.
The line is owned by Pipavav Railway Corporation Limited (PRCL), a joint venture of the Gujarat Pipavav Port Limited (GPPL) and Indian Railways formed in 2000. GPPL also owns Pipavav port, the country’s first private port that handles exports of mainly agricultural commodities and cars, and imports of fertiliser, coal, LPG, etc. While phone calls and an e-mail by The Indian Express to GPPL remained unanswered, port sources said almost 70% of all cargo from Pipavav moves by this railroad.
The latest spate of collisions has the Gujarat government worried.
“Seven deaths in six months are too many. We need to act promptly to prevent such incidents,” Mulu Bera, the Gujarat Forest and Environment Minister, told The Indian Express.
Conservation efforts and a search for more territory
Till 1990, Gir National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary (GNPWLS) was the only place in the world where Asiatic lions were found. However, as their population grew due to conservation efforts, lions, which are territorial animals, started spilling out of the 1,153.52-sqkm GNPWLS in the early 1990s. They started moving east in the Shetrunji valley. By early 2000s, they established their kingdom in the revenue areas of Savarkundla and Rajula, say forest officials.
“Since salty groundwater keeps agriculture in Savarkundla, Lilia and some parts of Mahuva along banks of Shetrunji limited, there is plenty of space for herbivores like blue bulls, spotted deer, wild boars, etc., and lions, who follow such prey,” says Pratap Chandu, RFO of Savarkundla.
As per the 2020 lion census, there were 674 Asiatic lions in Gujarat. Of these, 233 or around 35% are in Amreli. Savarkundla and Rajula accounted for 181 of the 233 lions, the data shows.
Coincidentally, the Pipavav-Surendranagar railway line, which runs through the eastern part of Amreli after originating from Pipavav, also became operational in 2003-04. Data show that traffic has increased on this line over the past two decades.
After lions started dying on tracks, the forest department erected a 40-km fence on either side of the railway line in Rajula in 2017. Following the recent spate of accidents, the department has deployed seven additional railway sevaks or trackers in Savarkundla, taking their number up to 14. Rajula range already has 45 trackers. Their job is to keep a watch on the movement of lions along the tracks and to alert the railway authorities as soon as they are spotted.
Forest department has also deployed JCBs to clear all vegetation along the tracks, is repairing the damaged fence and has erected 10 watchtowers along the track. It has also installed signage asking loco pilots to remain alert while they pilot trains through lion territory.
Walking along the track and a WhatsApp group
Jayan Patel, Shetrunji’s Deputy Conservator of Forests (DCF), and a few other forest officers even rode in the loco pilot’s cabin to see the train cut through the lion kingdom in Amreli. On its part, the Western Railway’s Bhavnagar division has created a WhatsApp group to share with forest officers real-time information of trains plying in Amreli.
Bhavesh Parmar, 25, has been a railway tracker for about 18 months.
“Since I start tracking the movement of lion prides in my area from 4 pm onwards, I have a fair idea of where they are at dusk. But it is impossible and extremely risky to tail a pride through the entire night. Besides, doing so can expose to risks other lions that can stray from nearby territories,” says Parmar, adding that lions like the warmth of the ballast on the railway track during winters and also come on the embankment during monsoon to escape mosquitoes and flies.
From Khadkala, Juneja heads to Badhada village, 25 km away, towards Pipavav port and takes an update from tracker Meru Boricha, who is on an under-construction watchtower.
“In flat terrain, we are hoping that these watchtowers will help trackers detect the presence of lions while the animals are at a distance from the track,” Juneja tells The Indian Express.
The forest department requested the Railways to limit the speed of trains to 20 km per hour (kmph) when lions are seen moving in the vicinity of this line. “But the Railways runs them at 45 kmph, saying that slowing down further will lead to lots of congestion at Pipavav port,” Rajdeepsinh Zala, DCF of Gir (East), says.
Railway officers say night time is their limited window to operate more goods trains.
“The sectional speed on this line is 100 kmph and our trains run at 100-110 kmph. As per law, we have to give priority to passenger trains. So we have a limited window to operate goods trains…” a Railway officer says.
Minister Bera said the forest department will install solar lights on the tracks if the Railways doesn’t. “With due respect to the port and railway track’s importance in the country’s economy, we have to respect the fact that lions are also our heritage and we need to do all it takes to protect and conserve them,” he says.