A WALK IN THE CLOUDS


It is a dramatic opening act to an adventurous sojourn. There was a nail-biting and heart-in-the-mouth landing at Paro airport, after lurching through the serrated peaks of some of the highest mountains in the world and a brilliant blue sky. The immaculate airport looks more like an ornate tiered castle with carved windows and wooden roofs – an appropriate portal to this last Shangri-La.

bhutan-traditional outfitI arrive in this country with a blessing –with a sungkeye or a red thread tied on my wrist by a Buddhist priest, warding off evil spirits. Bhutan moves as its own rhythm –sequestered in self-imposed isolation over the years and today following a unique ‘low volume, high value tourism policy’. What is unique about this country is that it has never been conquered, never been occupied by any foreign power. Change came to this Utopia slowly; television and internet in 1999 and cell phones in 2003.

Bhutan is rigidly traditional in so many ways. Even today the Bhutanese life is governed by Driglam Namzhe – an official dress, behaviour and architecture code that traces its roots to Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, the Tibetan lama and military leader who sought to unify Bhutan.

The Bhutanese are required to wear traditional dress in schools, public offices and at official functions. The men wear the Kimono-like gho, cinched at the waist like a kilt, with incongruous knee length socks and shoes and the women wear the wrap-around skirts with three panels called kira with silk jackets. Many Bhutanese still walk miles on mountain paths to schools and fields and cook on wood stoves.

traditional architectureI love the traditional architecture which is prevalent throughout the country – exquisitely crafted wooden roofs, painted windows, columns and beams. Motifs of double dorjes or thunderbolts with colourful clouds, dragons and lotuses adorn the houses. Most of the agriculture is still done by traditional methods; crops are mostly harvested by hand.

Everywhere I see the unquestioning reverence for the monarch – a whiff of fresh air to my senses jaded by corrupt politicians. “We love our king” is the constant refrain that I hear when I notice locals sporting badges of the royal couple. The perfect counterpoint to all the tradition is the night clubs where young Bhutanese in jeans and spiky hairdos dance the night away.

Uma Paro

Our boutique Hotel Uma Paro looks like a rustic dzong, built in the traditional architectural style of Bhutan, with shingles held down by small stones, well crafted cornices, carved and hand-painted windows and minimalistic interiors.

Our spacious villa comes with a butler – gentle Sengay is our Man Friday, our guide and fountainhead of all things local. He offers archery lessons, lights a wood fire in the room and plans our itinerary. I am reminded of Linda Leaming in her book Married to Bhutan when i meet Sengay: “if I had to name the biggest difference between Bhutan and the rest of the world, I could do it in one world, civility”.

Paro’s main street is short, filled with stout two-storied buildings with rickety stairs draped with swathes of scarlet chillies, small cafes, prayer wheels and handicraft shops. The Rinpung Dzong looms ahead with its roofs and eaves, a striking contrast against the craggy mountains. Dzong were impregnable fortress meant to keep the Tibetan invaders out – today they house monks, temples and serve as the administrative headquarters. Traditionally they were built with no written plan and no nails.

Rinpung dzongAs I enter the dzong, saffron-robed monks scurry across the stone courtyard. I am entranced by the murals and carvings – a sensory overload with motifs drawn from local culture with gods and goddesses, demons and thunderbolts all women into a fascinating narrative. My favourite is the depiction of the legend of the Four Harmonious Friends, a favourite Buddhist tale. Four animals cooperate here to plant a seed, grow a fruit tree, and harvest its fruit to share with each other.

I visit the Dumsteg Lhakhang or the iron bridge temple and learn about the iron bridge builder Thangton Gyelpo, a Tibetan spritiual master who brought the knowledge of ironwork to Bhutan. He is said to have built more than 108 iron suspension bridges around Bhutan and Tibet. This iron bridge lama seems multi faceted – he used to compose folk songs and indulged in opera too!

Chelela PassWe drive through vertiginous forests of spruce, fir and juniper, with wispy lichen draped on silver fir trees, rejuvenated by the deep mountain silence, passing shaggy yaks at higher altitudes. We crunch our way on icy roads to the highest point on Bhutanese roads, the Chele La Pass with a panoramic view of the Himalayas and the second highest peak Jhomolhari. In typical Bhutanese style, the mountains cannot be climbed as they are revered and holy. Through the gossamer folds of multi-coloured prayer flags, weathered by wind and rain, I look down at the photogenic Haa Valley, only recently opened to tourism. Prayer flags flap in the wind all over the country,carrying prayers to heaven like invisible Morse code- for good luck, protection form an illness or help in achieving a goal.

All along the road, we pass crevices in rocks filled with tsa tsa – small triangular mud pies, painted white or gold, contained ashes of departed souls. We hike up to the Kila La Nunnery, clinging to a vertical cliff where more than sixty nuns live in self-imposed isolation, spending their time in meditation and social service. I get a glimpse of the maroon-robed nuns as they go about their daily routine, many of them teenagers. I understand that many families send at least one son or daughter to be a monk and serve humanity in order to earn “heavenly merit”.

Back at the hotel, I soak in traditional hot stone bath to relieve my tired traveller’s muscles. Heated river stones are used to warm the waters, treated with Himalayan salts and infused with camphor leaves. When you strike a Buddhist singing bowl, unseen hands in the next room send a stone rolling down the chute.

National sport of Bhutan ArcheryEven Bhutan’s entertainment is old-fashioned and quaint. Archery competitions can be witnessed throughout Paro and its outskirts, where women pack lunch and cheer the men on and teams celebrate their hits at targets 140 metres away with a victory twirl, a song and dance and trophies of brightly coloured scarves added to their waistbands. I get a glimpse of the influence of the outside world – the Bhutanese spend a lot of money on their hobby and do not use bamboo but expensive high tech carbon fibre bows and arrows!

We visit the National Museum high up on a hill, which used to be an old watchtower of the dzong and was renovated to become a museum. This peculiar circular building is filled with wooden carvings, coin collections, the biggest mask in Bhutan and a stamp gallery showcasing the culture and history of the country over the years. Bhutan is a heaven for stamp collectors – with a variety of stamps, some even with recordings in them.

Far away I see the iconic Tiger’s Nest monastery, clinging to a vertiginous granite cliff strung with colourful prayer flags, where Guru Rinpoche is said to have arrived in the 8th century, on the back of a flying tigress. I regretfully file it under my mental list of “things to do on my next trip”. I wish I was blessed with a capacious pair of lungs but I am not taking chances with the water thin air that has already made me heady.

The winds of change are blowing over this pristine kingdom. In 2006, the fourth king who was a visionary (he set up health care systems, hydroelectric schemes, and banned western-type buildings) not only voluntarily gave up the throne to his son but also ordered that the country hold its first democratic elections. The last Shangri-La may not be as insulated from the modern world as it has been for centuries. May be the best time to see Bhutan is now.

Courtesy by K.T.

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World Cruise – A Luxurious Way to Travel to All the Beautiful Locations in the World


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Almost everyone goes through a good and memorable travel experience at least once in their lifetimes. However, a few people have the opportunity of going on a glamorous getaway by choosing an upscale and luxurious world cruise. Nowadays, it is getting easier for every interested person to actually indulge in such a wonderful activity. The Luxury Cruise Company works with the best cruise lines ships, yachts, speed boats and other waterway vessels that make it possible for guests to have the best time of their lives. A major part of the world can be seen through a sea voyage. Not only is it more interesting and restful to travel by sea, but also allows the travelers to have an extended holiday, away from their usual routines.

A world cruise is planned and executed flawlessly. The travelers get to stay in the best ports so that all the attractions and sights…

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TRYST WITH TALLINN


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The Estonians are only discovering their culture — so immersed in history [from KGB museums to wartime subs] – but certainly not disconnected from the rest of the modern world. This is, after all, where Skype was born TEXT AND PHOTOS: STUART FURSTE

DID YOU KNOW?  You can take a ferry from neighbouring Helsinki in Finland or Stockholm in Sweden to Tallinn While Tallinn is the official capital, Tartu is the cultural capital, and Pamu is known as the summer capital.

It speaks volumes for Tallinn’s charm that the Estonian capital’s Old Town is an attractive place to stroll around even on a cool, drizzly evening. Dusk, with the yellow glow of street lamps reflecting on damp cobbles and the lanes largely empty of people, is as good a time as any to explore the well-preserved medieval centre.

wooden clockTallinn was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site 16 years ago, but travellers are only slowly discovering the rich heritage of this city of 425,000 people. Centuries ago, the merchants of the Hanseatic League of trading cities invested their wealth in grand Gothic buildings that today stand as photogenic landmarks, such as the Town Hall and the Great Guild Hall, now the site of the Estonian History Museum. St Olav’s Church was the tallest building in the world from 1549 to 1625, but lightning struck and burned down its 159-metre high spire; the sleek replacement you’ll see reaching into the sky today is a mere 124 metres tall. These sites are within easy walking distance of each other and are still ringed by 1.9 km of city walls interspersed with defensive towers. Ten metres under those walls, you can take a guided tour along the bastion tunnels, part of the Kiek in de Kok museum (www.linnamuu- seum.ee, open from Tuesday to Sunday), to learn how the Swedes, Germans and Russians had each occupied Tallinn.

The Soviets built a civil defence shelter down in the tunnels with the capacity to be used by 1,000 people in the event of a nuclear emergency. The shelter still existed in 1991, when Estonian independence was restored. Since then, embracing freedom, Tallinn has modernised rapidly outside of the well-preserved Old Town. Locals are quick to point out how technologically advanced their young nation is and you may well hear proud boasts that Estonians developed the software behind Skype, the Internet-based telecommunications platform. The people give the impression that they are forward thinking and open to outside influences. For international visitors, this brings the advantage that English is widely spoken in Tallinn, meaning it’s relatively easy to get around, acquire information or order food and drink.

One of the best places to get an overview of the city and appreciate Tallinn’s skyline — the Old Town to one side and modern offices, shopping malls and hotels on the other — is from the walkway up on the 24th floor of the Sokos Hotel Viru, built in the 1970s to accommodate foreign tourists and keep watch over them. The hotel was once riddled with listening devices belonging to the Soviet secret service, the KGB. Jana Sampetova, a petite blonde, leads tours of its upper floor, now known as the Hotel Viru and KGB Museum (www.sokoshotels.fi), recounting a series of anecdotes illustrating how  life was under the former regime. Some of the tales are laced with dark humour. One guest, explains Sampetova, was brought toilet paper by a member of hotel staff — without ordering it — after bugs overheard muttered complaints that their bathroom had none. Perhaps the legacy of the Soviet influence is most telling in subtle manifestations.

seaplan harborPointing over towards Toompea, the old fortress on high ground in the Old Town, a tour guide explains how “Tallinn is layered like a Russian doll” and that the castle area represents the smallest doll, at its centre. Estonians are beginning to explore their history and national identity. One of Tallinn’s major new attractions is the Seaplane Harbour Museum (www.lennusadan1.eu), which opened in May last year, occupying the site of an aircraft hangar built in 1916- 17. The story of Estonia’s naval history is told within the museum’s subtly lit hall, covered by the arches of a reinforced concrete roof that is 8 cm thick at its thinnest point. The star attraction is the Lembit submarine, which was built during the 1930s, in Barrow-in-Furness, in England, for the Estonian navy. The sub was on the water for 75 years before being moved into the hangar so that visitors can clamber through the hatch and explore below deck. lmpressively, it still has its original engine. The museum makes good use of technology and information about the exhibits is displayed on touch-controlled screens. You’re given a swipe card on entry and each time you see something of interest, you can choose to have it emailed to you, to read later. You can also get a feel for how the harbour’s defenders would have felt as they were attacked by enemy aircraft during wartime. A simulator, using computer game technology, allows you to man a full-size machinegun post and shoot at approaching planes. They are trickier to hit than you might think.

maru cafe-restMaru, the smart cafe-restaurant overlooking the Seaplane Harb0ur’s main hall, serves delicious black rye bread with soup flavoured by mushrooms, fresh from the forests that cover almost half of the country’s surface area. Though it’s hard to believe, given the quality of the food at Maru, Estonians are only now beginning to explore and enjoy their cuisine, which was long regarded as stodgy and inferior to foreign foods. “Five years ago, there were not so many restaurants in Tallinn that served Estonian food. We had Italian and French cuisine, sushi places, but not so many places serving Estonian,” says Rene Uusmees, the executive chef at Mekk, a chic but casual restaurant (www.mekk.ee) in the Old Town. Uusmees works with locally-sourced ingredients such as smoked fish, fresh cloudberries and wild lingonberries. He uses traditional recipes but applies techniques that he learned in France. “The idea is to serve nice local food and to develop it, because we are a young country,” says Uusmees, who regards Estonian cuisine as part of the contemporary Nordic food movement that is currently impressing gourmets worldwide. Uusmees suggests visitors to Tallinn should also dine at the restaurants Leib (at Uus 31) and Neh (at Lootsi 4) to acquire a rounded overview of what the country can offer.

outdoor diningAt the beginning of 2011, Estonia, a signatory of the Schengen Agreement, became the 17th nation to adopt the Euro as its currency. Thanks to reasonably priced accommodation and restaurants, those Euros go much further in Tallinn than many European capitals. This helps explain its growing popularity as a destination for short breaks, particularly for Finns, many of whom arrive on ferries from Helsinki, 82 km and three hours away, across the Gulf of Finland. The city centre is only 4km from Lennart Meri Tallinn Airport, where international travellers land. The long Baltic summer days are ideal for exploring Tallinn, which is compact enough to explore on foot and has much to offer visitors looking to experience a taste of its heritage.

Learn more about travel and tourism within Estonia via the http://www.visitestonia com website.

For more information about Tallinn, visit http://www.tourism.tallinn.ee

Courtesy by K.T.

SAHARAN ADVENTURE


food stallsMarrakech is a fascinating mosaic of cultures and traditions, desert landscapes, authentic Kasbahs, spice bazaars and sumptuous palaces.  For decades, it’s been  attracting artists,  writers and — more  recently — travellers in  search of the exotic  STORY 8 PHOTOS BY  ANDREW MARSHALL  t’s late afternoon in the centre of  exotic Marrakech, founded more  than 1,000 years ago with its  Andalusia-inspired arches, ochre  ramparts, souq  marketplaces and  distinctive skyline of mosques set  against the majestic snow-capped High  Atlas Mountains. I find myself thoroughly lost in the medina, where narrow passageways seethe with human activity. Covered bazaars are crammed with spice stalls and workshops of every kind, with artisans at work fashioning slippers, weaving rugs, dyeing textiles and hammering metals.

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In the heart of the city is the world-famous Djemaa el-Fna, a town square named by UNESCO as part of Humanity’s Universal Heritage. This cultural and artistic crossroads is a meeting place for locals and a stage for storytellers, acrobats, musicians and snake charmers. I grab a seat and a chilled drink at Le Grand Balcon overlooking the square and watch the drama unfold.

As the orange sun travels across the sky and the minarets and palms gradually fall into silhouettes, chefs begin to cart in their food stalls and before long the aroma of barbecued meats and  kebabs fills the air. When the sun finally sets, all the music in the medina ceases for one of the most evocative of travel sounds, the muezzin’s call to prayer.  Soon, another muezzin in another mosque starts up, and then another until the entire city is filled with these fervent sounds.

In addition to street eats, Marrakech offers some wonderful fine-dining opportunities at palace restaurants, most of which are converted riads (a traditional house or palace with an interior garden).  An excellent example is the Narwama, hidden away down a narrow alleyway covered in Berber rugs, a short stroll from the medina. Situated in a glorious 19th century riad with 21st century Zen décor, the Narwama offers an award-winning combination of Moroccan and Thai cuisine with the best Mojito in town.  “The food we serve here is Fez cuisine, the finest in Morocco and one of our house specialities is lamb tajine with pears,” says the owner Ali Bousfiha. “The tajine is Morocco’s most famous dish and the name refers to the conical-lidded pot in which it is prepared, as well as  the intricately spiced stew of meat  and vegetables, sometimes with dried  fruits and nuts, cooked very slowly over  a charcoal fire.”

DID YOU KNOW?  Marrakech gets its nickname of ‘red city’ from the city walls, which are made of a distinct orange-red clay and chalk that give them their colour.

5 THINGS NOT TO BE MISSED

* Go haggling in the souqs of Marrakech for carpets, slippers, ceramics, leather ware and more.

* Eat traditional spice-laden Moroccan food from a restaurant in the Medina.

* Go skiing or trekking in the Atlas Mountains.

* Relax at the Cascades d’Ouzoud (167km northeast of Marrakech) where the three-tiered falls drop 110m into the river below.

* Go to a hammam for a traditional Moroccan bath or massage.

TRADE  CENTRE  Marrakech has the  largest traditional  Berber market  (souk) in Morocco,  and you can find anything from  traditional Berber  carpets and  slippers to  consumer  electronics and  much more at the  several souks there

The following morning I’m up early to be ready for a three-day High Atlas Mountains to the Sahara Tour, which I had arranged the previous evening with my hotel tour operator. It’s 7am and I join a small group, made up of four Brits, an American couple and an Australian, standing outside the Hotel Ali in Marrakech. “Could be the perfect recipe for a cramped weekend,” I think to myself, as we all crowd into the minibus, and hit the P3 1 road towards the mountains.

kasbah under atlasFrom Marrakech, the 70km climb to the Tiz n Tichka Pass in the High Atlas Mountains is a clutch-grinding series of switchbacks, offering fantastic views.  The first stop is a wind-blasted pass poised between the two worlds of the High Atlas Mountains and the sub-Sahara. We head towards the Dades, Draa and Ziz Valleys, blessed in this arid land with life-giving rivers. They are indescribably beautiful, lined with palmeraies, ancient Kasbahs and towns that have changed little in centuries. Historically, tribal feuding and banditry were a way of life for the Berbers of the region, and as a result, hundreds of Kasbahs (defensive forts constructed of red baked clay) were built throughout these valleys.

Thirty-eight km before Ouarzazate is the exotic Kasbah of Ait Benhaddou, a location favoured by filmmakers. Over 20 movies have been produced here including Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator. We enter the Kasbah through a broad arching gateway that leads to the living quarters of the village, pass through courtyards of homes adorned with colourful Berber rugs and enjoy expansive views that demonstrates the Kasbah’s once strategic strength.

In nearby Ouarzazate, the minibus grinds to a halt in a tight knot of laneways where our driver jumps out and leads the group through a labyrinth of passage- ways to a dim doorway where Mohammed spreads his arms wide in welcome.  “Hello, what are your names? Where are you from? Please, come in and see some magnificent carpets.” After being encouraged to make ourselves at home, Mohammed reappears carrying a silver tray with an elegant metal teapot packed with fresh mint leaves, tea and sugar.  While he makes a spectacle of pouring  the fragrant golden liquid from a great  height into small decorative glasses, his  brother Ali brings in some rugs to “plea-  sure our eyes”, and with great flourishing flicks rolls them out before us. After  haggling hard and stocking up on carpets, we drop down from the High Atlas  Mountains into the Dades Valley and  the spectacular Dades Gorge with its  glowing red gorge walls, startling rock  formations, more Kasbahs and finally  our bed for the night.

The next day, with the mountains far behind, the surrounding stony landscape gradually changes into windblown sandy plains. Ahead, begins the Great Erg Chebbi, an immense dune system that sweeps south into the Sahara. Nearby, several camels stand masticating, waiting to carry the tour group into the desert sunset.

In single file, we ride into this vast sea of sand, where the dunes rise and fall like waves. The setting sun casts shadows of the camels and riders across the rippling sands, a more romantic image than the reality of the camels’ jolting motion and foul breath.  Fading pink clouds have been swallowed by the night sky as we finally reach our camp consisting of two tents of camel hair slung over low poles in a depression in the dunes. As we all sink gratefully into rugs thrown over the sand, the camel- handlers, Brahim and Mahjoubi serve mint tea followed by delicious tajines.  After dinner, Mahjoubi takes out his drum and he and Brahim begin to sing an ancient song of love. One of the travellers plays a didgeridoo, another pulls out his harmonica, while the tummy grumbles of the camels add another musical dimension to this magical atmosphere under a star-studded Saharan sky.

Courtesy – K.T

Lioness Laxmi’s lucky five in Zoo


Three Year Old Mother in Gir (Junagadh, Gujarat, India) has Given birth to a Record litter, all the cubs are healthy 

Five seems to be the lucky number for Laxmi. This three year old lioness in Gir (Junagadh, Gujarat, India) has given birth to a litter of five. Interestingly, Laxmi herself was one of a litter of five born to lioness named Shyama.

At her age, Laxmi should usually be learning the tricks of hunting, but she is already a mother and playing the role with tremendous ease. She is taking good care of the cubs and is protecting them from all kinds of threats of jungle life.

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On May 17, 2013, Laxmi gave birth to five cubs in Gir Interpretation Zone at Devaliya (Sasan Gir, Junagadh, Gujarat, India). The cubs are now 75 days old and weigh between 3.5 and 4 kg. The cubs have begun to supplement the mother’s milk with meat as they have already developed teeth. “This is a remarkable feat as normally a lioness gives birth to 2 to 3 cubs and it is rather rare for all the cubs to survive. Laxmi deserves praise for her mothering skills well proved by the thriving brood,” said a forest officer.

Gujarat’s chief wildlife warden C.N. Pandey said, “Laxmi has inherited good genes. She was born on May 3, 2010, at Sakarbaug Zoo, Junagadh (Gujarat, India) to lion Daksh and lioness Shyama. However, her mother Shyama could raise only three of them. The rest died in their infancy. Laxmi has been able to achieve a record”.

“A lioness can feed only four cubs at a time. But Laxmi has been able to work around this biological limitation. This example illustrate that Asiatic lions are genetically strong and competent,” said Pandey. “The forest department continues to play a leading role in biodiversity conservation through dedicated management and support to nature with skill care. It is crucial that each and every individual of an endangered species is protected with proper skills and capability”.

“Birth to five cubs in a litter is extremely rare,” an official of the department said.

“We were not sure if Laxmi would be able to raise all five cubs. But she was to make a record in the known history of Asiatic Lion management. Laxmi, supported by the forest department staff, she has been able to ensure that all of her survive,” the official said.

Courtesy:- Times of India

Gujarat readies to clone its Lions


Sets up DNA Banks to preserve and improve Gene pool

Like humans, Asiatic Lions now have a gene bank with a cloning facility. In collaboration with the Gujarat State Bio-Technology Mission (GSBTM), the forest department has already collected 80 strains of DNA of the Asiatic lion.

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The DNA banking of lions will not only be useful for further diseases and management related issues, but will also help to have healthy lion genes. An exclusive “Institute of Wildlife Genomics and DNA Banking” will be set up by the end of this year.

Akshaykumar Saxena, the GSBTM Director, says, “The institute is a joint collaboration of the forest department and the GSBTM, and will come up in Gandhinagar(Gujarat). We are already working on the project”.

The institute will help the department to overcome fears that the genes of the lions are deteriorating, as the institute will have a data bank of genes of different types of lions in Gir Region (Gujarat, India). Having lineage data will help the wildlife experts evaluate breeding stress and diseases susceptibility, say officials. The DNA bank will also have embryo transfer technology to supplement highly endangered species.

asian-lion-sleeping_452_990x742An official says, “The institute will help identify the cats with the best genes, which will be introduced at the gene pool centre set up at Sakarbaugh Zoo (Junagadh, Gujarat, India) and Rampara Virdi (Rajkot, Gujarat, India).

Once the institute is fully operational, various studies related to diseases and other management aspects of lions will be taken up. The genetic material stored in these banks will be used to increase genetic diversity. Material from DNA banks can be used to infuse small populations with new genetic material, increasing their chances of survival. Another goal of DNA banks is to increase the population size.

In 1999, at the Audubon Center for Research of Endangered species a domestic house cat gave birth to an African wildcat kitten that had been frozen as an embryo in a DNA bank. This was the first example of inter species birth. In 2000, the Center produced test-tube Caracal cats from sperm that had been stored in their DNA bank.

Officials say that the GSBTM is also in the process of collecting samples of cubs born at Rampara virdi (Rajkot, Gujarat, India) to study their genes. The GSBTM also plans to carry out a study of the Pestes Des Petits Ruminants Virus (PPRV).

Courtesy:- Times of India

 

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