Wildlife success stories are seldom scripted, hence a roar of commendation is due for efforts resulting in the population of lions in the Gir Forest rising from 411 in the last count in 2010 to 523 in the census conducted earlier this month, up by 27 per cent. While in typical political fashion the sycophantic state government is hailing it as yet another achievement of Narendra Modi, the protection programme actually took root when a 1974 count pointed to only 180 of the last of the Asiatic lions: which sent alarm bells ringing. Simultaneously, it is important to note the thrust that Mr Modi, when chief minister, had given to the conservation effort and it is hoped his successor will sustain the campaign. The signal that Anandiben Patel sought to send out by opting to personally release the census report at a media-event will resonate only if conservation remains in top gear even after the Modi-effect dissipates. It would be wonderful if the "leonine legend" spreads eastwards, and Vasundhra Raje comes good on her promise to restore Rajasthan's "state bird", the Great Indian bustard, to its unique brand of glory. Big cats are not all that matter, though their doing well does indicate that conditions in the eco-system at large are generally favourable.
A happy feature of the lion census is that over 200 of the cats identified were in the subadult age, pointing to unfettered breeding. Opinion will be divided over the lions extending - or re-capturing - their turf so that it now spans from 22,000 sq km. While the maximum, 267, were resident in the Gir many had made their home beyond it, which is an indication of the sanctuary not being able to sustain the increased population. And that raises the question if the specifics of the conservation drive can be similarly extended: apart from covering most of the traditional "blind-wells" and cracking down on electrified fences around a few villages, a critical role had been played when involving the local populace to defuse potential man-animal conflicts.
The Maldhari community had been fully supportive, 300 of them had served in groups that enlightened villagers not to attack lions that may have strayed into their lands. Can that mission be extended to the lions' extended territory? It is against that reality - not to mention roads, railways and pilgrimages to certain temples - that the success story needs evaluation. Would it not be magnanimous if in its hour of glory the Gujarat authorities re-considered their opposition to the apex court- approved plan to relocate some lions in a forest in the Kuno-Palpur game park in Madhya Pradesh. The "pride" over the lions must not be limited by parochial pique.