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It is a rare, little-known conservation success story. Asian lions have shot up in numbers from a low 50 or fewer in the early 1900s to more than 400 today. For the last few decades, the 1,400 sq km Gir forest was known as the last refuge of a species that once ranged across north India, from the Punjab in the north, to Jharkhand in the east, to the Narmada river in the south, and as far west as northern Morocco and Greece. 

In 1973, the Gir Lion Project relocated almost 600 resident Maldhari families and their livestock and banished hundreds of thousands of cattle that seasonally grazed in Gir. Easing the pressure from domestic animals allowed the vegetation to recover, and as a consequence, wild herbivores bounced back ten-fold. From living off cattle in the early days of the Project, the felines changed their diets to spotted deer, sambhar and nilgai. 

However, the cats were chased away from cattle kills, so the owners could recoup some of their losses by selling the hide and meat. When more wild prey became available, the cats could fill their bellies, with no fear of losing their meal. And they proliferated. But they also continue to kill some livestock. That is inevitable when approximately 100,000 cattle, most belonging to people outside the reserve, continue to graze tantalizingly under the lions’ noses in the forests every day. About 4% of the total livestock population is lost to these felines annually.

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