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Baza-mania

When it comes to birdwatching, Central India might not be the most happening place in our country. The forests of Western Ghats and the sub-Himalayan belt of North India, as well as the forests of Northeast India, hold much more diversity than the deciduous forests of Central India. But still for a bird enthusiast like me, the forest of Kanha can spring up a few surprises every now and then.

It’s been almost a year now that I have been here, and during this time I have managed to see 11 new bird species in the forests of Kanha! But among these new birds that I got to see, the most exciting were definitely the two species of bazas.

Bazas are raptors, meaning predatory birds, belonging to the genus Aviceda. A prominent feature of these bird is a long crest originating at the back of the head. Five different species of bazas are found from the African continent in the west, through South and Southeast Asia, up to the eastern coast of Australia in the east. Some members of this genus are also known as cuckoo-hawks, especially the African species.

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Jerdon’s Baza

In India, we have two species of bazas, the Jerdon’s Baza and the Black Baza. Both these raptors are residents of Northeast India and Southern Western Ghats, and are only scarcely recorded in Central India. But both the bazas have previously been spotted in Kanha. Because of their scare records, I never really thought I might get a chance to see these two beautiful raptors here. But as luck would have it, I got to see both of them, and that too within a span of just one month.

In March, I was on a safari with an elderly American couple. It was their first safari, and they were hoping to get a glimpse of tiger on at least one of their drives; so watching birds was not our top priority. Early into the safari, while driving through a fairly open patch of forest, I casually glanced upwards on a dead tree, and saw a medium-sized raptor perched there. It was still a little dark, and all I could make out was that the bird was brown in colour; no other features were visible. My first guess was that the bird was an Oriental Honey-buzzard, but as I stared at the bird a little longer, I noticed a crest poking above its head. The thought of this being a Jerdon’s Baza, a new bird for me, started playing in my head repeatedly, like a catchy song that gets stuck in your mind. I immediately pulled out my camera, and clicked a few record shots. As the light was bad, I could not get very good photos, but managed decent enough shots so that the identity the bird could be confirmed later on. And later on, it did turn out to be a Jerdon’s Baza. I shared the exciting news with the American couple, but they only smiled meekly at me, probably perplexed as to why one should get all excited on seeing a bird!

Black Baza.jpg
Black Baza

Approximately a month later, in April, I was doing a morning safari with an enthusiastic Indian family. Being experienced wildlife campaigners, the family had expressed their wish to see everything in the forest, and not just the bigger wildlife. As we drove through a patch of Saal forest, we spotted a back bird flying though the top canopy of the tall Saal trees. Not expecting a baza, I dismissed the bird to being an Indian Jungle Crow. But a second glance of the bird in flight revealed the white patches on the underwings. No more glances were needed to recognise the bird, but I wanted to try and get a photo. The Black Baza kept on scurrying from one tree to other, in an attempt to avoid us. Luckily, it then it caught a large, green insect (may be a mantis or a caterpillar) and settled on an open branch to feed on it, giving us ample opportunities to get some photos. But more than getting the photographs, I was really happy to see the bird through the binoculars, and I have to confess that this is one of the most beautiful birds I have ever seen.

Sighting both the bazas of India in Kanha within a span of just one month put me on cloud nine for a while. But as the excitement settled down, I realised that I have been really lucky to be in the right place at the right time, as during both the instances, ours was the only car present to see these rare birds. There are some more birds on my wish-list to see in Kanha, and I just hope that my luck with birds continues just like this in the coming season too.

Pranad Patil
Naturalist, Singinawa Jungle Lodge

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Butterfly bonanza!

‘I can see a Red Flash,’ whispered Pranad. He was looking through his binoculars at a wet, muddy patch of earth on the edge of a waterhole in Kanha National Park. We all picked up our binoculars and started scanning for this uncommon butterfly. We could not spot it at the first go as there were literally hundreds of butterflies at the spot. We had to carefully eliminate all the Large Oakblues, Indian Oakblues, Blue Tigers, Common Crows, Common Emigrants, Zebra Blues and several other species which had gathered in this corner of the waterhole, but finally we managed spot this pale, white butterfly, with flashy-orange inside. We were actually out on a morning safari in the park to look for mammals and birds, but the safaris eventually turned into a butterfly and dragonfly-watching event.

Red Flash
Red Flash, clicked within the lodge premises. Photo credit: Sachin Sharma

As the summer is reaching its peak, the time of the year for butterfly-watching is perfect. These beautiful insects gather in big numbers alongside waterholes and in cool, shaded streams inside the forest. There is a wet stream in the forest, just a couple of kilometres from Mukki Gate, which is probably the best butterfly hotspot in the park. Rakesh, our naturalist, once exclaimed that there were over 10,000 butterflies in the stream after he came back from the safari. Once, when I had stopped at the stream, I counted 37 species at the spot, flittering or resting amongst the vegetation along the stream.

Common Onyx
Common Onyx, seen at Singinawa Jungle Lodge. This is the first ever record of the species for Central Indian region. Photo Credit: David Raju

It is not just Kanha National Park which is a hotspot for butterflies. We have been getting some beautiful and rare butterflies in the Singinawa Jungle Lodge premises as well. The best part about spotting a butterfly in the lodge is that you can get close to the butterfly and click some nice images too. Over the last few weeks, we have spotted and photographed some rarities such as Common Onyx, Long-banded Silverline, Common Tinsel, Copper Flash, Indigo Flash, Apefly and a few others on the lodge grounds. While some of these butterflies turned out to be first records for entire Central India region, others are scarcely recorded here.

Copper Flash
Copper Flash. Photo credit: Pranad Patil
Long-banded Silverline
Long-banded Silverline. Photo credit: Sachin Sharma

One of the reasons we have so many butterflies in the lodge premises is that we have planted thousands of plants which are beneficial for the butterflies in our lodge. We have been careful in selecting only indigenous species of plants, so that habitat is not altered in any way. Also, our naturalists take immense pleasure and pride in documenting the lesser-known fauna, such as butterflies, dragonflies, spiders, amphibians, reptiles, etc. These new finds have just aided in boosting our enthusiasm and we hope to find many more interesting and rare creatures in the lodge and in the national park.

David Raju
Naturalist, Singinawa Jungle Lodge

Drama at a waterhole

It is a universally known fact that water supports life. Whether it is for humans, animals or plants, water plays an important role in any ecosystem. But as the summer is peaking in Kanha, supply of water is running short. During one of my recent safaris, I experienced how tough life is getting for the wildlife in the park.

I was on a morning safari, and it had started to get really warm. We were parked close to a shrinking waterhole, and several birds, mammals and reptiles were visiting the hole to quench their thirst. There was news of a tiger being close by too, and hence we decided to stay at the spot longer, waiting for it to come out to drink water as well.

There were quite a few aquatic creatures around, including frogs and fishes in the water, and some dragonflies circling above, some maybe even laying eggs in the shrinking waterbody. As we were enjoying watching these aquatic animals, suddenly a Crested Serpent Eagle swooped in and took off with a frog, which it decided to feast upon on a nearby tree. No sooner had the eagle left, an Indian Pond Heron followed the suit, and caught a frog for itself. Other birds, including a Wood Sandpiper, a pair of Red-wattled Lapwings and a Citrine Wagtail were all trying their hand (or beak to be precise) at catching some of the smaller aquatic life about the edge of the waterbody.

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Crested Serpent Eagle feeding on a frog.
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Indian Pond Heron feeding on a frog.

Finally it got hot enough, and the tiger decided to come out. A subadult male, just over 2 years of age, came out of the bamboo thickets, and sat in the waterbody to cool himself down. Tigers are known to do this, more so in the summer months. Suddenly a female tiger, a mother of three tiny cubs, came out of the bushes and approached the water. Adult tigers are solitary animals and generally do not like the company of each other. So this was extremely strange behaviour. Although there was some aggressive interaction between the two tigers, conveyed through body postures, the female tiger walked passed the subadult male and sat down in the water too. While we were trying to understand this strange behaviour, yet another tiger, this time an adult male, came near the waterhole and made himself comfortable in the water too. This male tiger, probably the father of the subadult tiger and of the cubs of the female tiger there, is also one of the biggest tigers in that area. Now there were three full-grown tigers in the waterhole and one could feel the tension in the air.

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Three full grown tiger sharing a waterhole is a rare sight to see.

If the situation already did not call for something exciting to happen, a massive bull Gaur now started approaching the waterhole. The Gaur must have been extremely thirsty, because even the sight of three tigers in the waterhole did not seem to deter him. We thought that the tigers would not allow him to come any closer, and might even try to take him down. But as he inched closer, the female tiger got up and went into the bushes, probably fearing for the safety of her cubs. The adult male tiger got up next, and we anticipated a chase. But even this tiger moved into the shade of the bushes. The stubborn subadult tiger, probably ignorant of the strength of a Gaur, did not leave the waterhole.

Tigers & Gaur (1 of 2)
A massive bull Gaur approaching the waterhole, despite the tigers’s presence.

Having made two tigers leave the waterhole, the Gaur was also feeling confident and started showing off his size in front of the subadult tiger. Finally even this tiger had to move out, and the Gaur had the waterhole to himself.

Tigers & Gaur (2 of 2)
The subadult tiger disregarded the presence of the massive Gaur for a long time.

This sighting took up most of our morning safari time, and we realised that we were all hungry as we had not had breakfast yet. So we left the waterhole and headed to the breakfast point in the park. The summers are really harsh on the animals in the forest, but they also give us an opportunity to witness such amazing interaction amongst the animals.

Sachin Sharma
Naturalist, Singinawa Jungle Lodge

Birding at Leopard Rock

We were staying at the Singinawa Jungle Lodge at Kanha during my winter vacations. I am really fond of birding and wildlife, and so we would either go for safaris or for birding outside the resort every morning. The resort is also spread out over a large area, and has many species of birds visiting here. Our naturalist had told us about one particular spot called Leopard Rock, which overlooked a large Ficus tree, commonly called Water Fig or River Fig. This tree was fruiting and was attracting many birds while we were there. I love forest birds and got very excited at the prospect of getting to observe and click some of these birds while they were feeding.

We walked down to the tree and sat down on the Leopard Rock. It got its name because someone had spotted a Leopard on the rock long back. Slowly, the birds started coming to the tree. Coppersmith Barbets were the first ones. The barbet makes a sound like a coppersmith working on copper, which is how it gets the name. Like all barbets, it chisels and hole in a tree to make a nest.

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Coppersmith Barbet

We also saw two flowerpeckers, the Pale-billed and the Thick-billed. The Pale-billed Flowerpecker is only 8 cm long and is the smallest bird in India. The Thick-billed Flowerpecker is a bit longer, may be about 10 cm. Both the flowerpeckers feed on fruits, nectar and insects. It was fascinating to see the Pale-billed Flowerpecker hanging upside down while feeding. Both the flowerpeckers can be differentiated by their beak. The Pale-billed Flowerpecker has a pinkish, curved beak and the Thick-billed Flowerpecker has a thick, grey beak.

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Pale-billed Flowerpecker
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Thick-billed Flowerpecker

While we were observing the flowerpeckers, I suddenly saw a flash of red and orange and noticed that a minivet had come too. We identified it as a Small Minivet, but it is also called Lesser or Fiery Minivet. It primarily feeds on insects and larvae. Even though I have seen this particular bird before, I still get fascinated with its bright colours.

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Small Minivet (male)

Slowly, the birds were getting used to our presence and started coming closer to us. Suddenly a Shikra swooped into the tree and spoilt the party, both for the birds and for us. The Shikra is a medium-sized raptor that preys on small mammals, birds and reptiles. Just as it approached the tree, all the birds on that tree flew away in an instant.

We waited for some time, hoping for the birds to come back. But, unfortunately, they didn’t. Though we were disappointed, we really couldn’t complain, as we had got to see many forest birds very closely for a long time and I had managed to get some really nice pictures of them as well.

Arnav Bajoria, 14 years old
(Guest at Singinawa Jungle Lodge)

The season of love

Many would say that the winters are the best time for birdwatching in any of the forests of the Indian Subcontinent. This would not be entirely incorrect, as several species of migratory birds make their way to the subcontinent to escape the harsh winters of their breeding grounds. But I would say that the brief spring, between the winters and summers, is the best time to see the birds in Kanha.

By this time, several of the winter migrants have left the forests of Kanha, and the ones which have not left are also getting ready to leave. But the real fun is to watch the resident birds, which are getting ready to breed, at this time. Triggered by the lengthening of the day and the warmth it brings along with it, several of the resident birds get busy courting, breeding, fighting off rivals and building their nests, or trying to accomplish more than one of these tasks simultaneously.

The Indian Roller (Coracias benghalensis) has one of the most flamboyant plumages of any Indian bird. The brilliant hues of electric blue shimmer in the sun more often than not, as the roller generally prefers the open grassland patches rather than the shaded woodlands of Kanha. But the brilliance of its colour cannot be appreciated until you see the bird in flight. The roller gets its name from its habit of performing ‘rolling’ displays, a series of airborne stunts performed by the male to attract a female.

Indian Roller - in flight
A male Indian Roller displaying while in flight.

But no other display is probably as ostentatious as the dance performed by male Indian Peafowl (Pavo cristatus). The males prefer to dance in areas frequented by the peahens while foraging. An open area, where the view of the ladies looking at them is not obstructed, is an added bonus. Real estate fulfilling these conditions is rare, and guarded fiercely. These gaudy gladiators wage carefree battles in order to gain momentary control of a small patch of forestland; and these battles can go on for hours, or even for days occasionally.

Indian Peafowl - males fighting 3
A male Indian Peafowl dives on its rival to scare him off.

The act of mating itself is quite brief in most birds; and it can be quite awkward for some. Swallows are tiny birds, no bigger than sparrows, built for flying. Their slender and streamlined bodies, and long, pointed wings are all designed to keep the bird in air for a long time. As a result, swallows spend a large part time of the day flying, catching insects and drinking water in flight too. When they land, these steadfast fliers look quite uncomfortable. And then when they are asked to mate, the act is nothing short of a walk on a tight rope.

Wire-tailed Swallow mating
A pair of Wire-tailed Swallows (Hirundo smithii) tries to balance on a wooden pole while mating.

But probably the most taxing task a bird has to complete during the breeding season is that of building a nest. And the act of building a nest is probably most demanding for the woodpecker. With their strong, heavy bills, woodpeckers drill holes in trees to nest in. Woodpecker pairs generally select a new place to nest every year, as the last year’s nest is no longer hygienic or gets encroached by squatters. Owls, parakeets, mynas, squirrels and several other residents of the forest depend on the woodpecker to build a nesting hole for them. So come spring time, the poor woodpeckers gets busy once again, drilling a new nesting cavity for itself.

Brown-capped Pygmy Woodpecker female
A female of Brown-capped Pygmy Woodpecker (Yungipicus nanus) excavating a nesting hole for herself.

This brief period of spring is the perfect time for the birds to accomplish this list of  laborious tasks. Summers quickly set in, and temperatures soar quite rapidly in the Central Indian forests, making it difficult for any animal to be active for much part of the day. But for an passionate birdwatcher like me, these are simply times of endless joy.

Pranad Patil
Naturalist, Singinawa Jungle Lodge

The colour of spring

In the tropical and semi-tropical forests of peninsular India, the spring season is not very eminent. The mild winters gradually make their way to the hot summers. Yet, in the forests of Kanha, there are tell-tale signs everywhere that the winter is over, and the short season of spring is here. Insects have suddenly become active and several resident birds are now busy courting, mating or making a nest, or doing all of these things simultaneously.

But the most conspicuous signs of the arrival of the spring are given by the trees of Kanha. Sporting green leaves almost throughout the year, several evergreen trees have now slowly and quietly changed their attire to a red one. These are young leaves, and the red costume is only a temporary one; for these leaves will change their colours into various shades of green almost as discreetly as they appeared.

Spring foliage 1

But why are these young leaves red? Surely these young leaves have to carry on the function of photosynthesis, and for this they need to be green. But there are reasons for these trees to keep the young leaves red. Young leaves appear red because of a pigment called anthocyanin. This pigment protects the vulnerable young leaves from the harmful radiation of the sun, till the time they are ready to cope with it. Red colour also makes the young leaves look unpalatable to herbivorous animals such as deer and monkeys. Anthocyanin also makes the leaves indigestible for defoliating insects, such as aphids. These gluttonous insects would otherwise devour the tender leaves of the tree as soon as they appear, which could be potentially lethal for the tree.

Spring foliage 2

Several trees, including the Saal (Shorea robusta), Mahua (Madhuca longifolia) and Mango (Mangifera indica) – some of the most common trees in Kanha, produce red leaves. But the red colour remains only for a short while, and the leaves of these trees turn into hues of green quickly. But the most magnificent of red is seen on the leaves of the Kusum (Schleichera oleosa) trees. Passing under a corridor shaded by Kusum trees at this time of the year is simply a sight to behold!

Spring foliage 3

Pranad Patil
Naturalist, Singinawa Jungle Lodge

Ficus fruits for breakfast

Ficus trees are one of the most charitable inhabitants of the dry deciduous forests of Central India. The large, evergreen trees probably provide the best shade during the hot, summer afternoons. It is no surprise, therefore, to see herds of Spotted Deer, Swamp Deer or even Gaurs sitting under Ficus trees to ruminate their morning meals during the hottest part of the day. And when they fruit, the bounty is shared by many creatures dwelling in our forests. Several birds and even monkeys feed on the fruits, which appear in their thousands, during the daytime, while the fruit-eating bats and nocturnal flying squirrels and civets benefit from them once it is dark.

One such generous Ficus tree, an Indian Fig Tree (Ficus racemosa) recently bore fruits within the premises of Singinawa Jungle Lodge. The first birds to spot the offerings of the tree were probably the barbets. Both barbets of Kanha, Brown-headed Barbet and Coppersmith Barbets, were present in healthy numbers to pick up the choicest of fruits from the tree. In fact they were so spoilt for choice, that a distasteful or unripe fruit would be dropped immediately after just a nibble in favour of a tastier one.

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Thick-billed Flowerpecker.jpgPale-billed Flowerpecker.jpg

The fruits attracted several insects as well; some arriving to just feed on the fruits, and others, like fig wasps, to carry on with their cycle of life. These insects in turn attracted insect-eating birds. Most prominent among them were the Oriental White-eyes. Smaller flocks of white-eyes merged to form a super-flock while feeding, members in which sometimes seemed to exceed a hundred. Pale-billed Flowerpeckers and Thick-billed Flowerpeckers also gobbled up on the protein-rich insects, although their attendance was just a mere fraction as compared to the white-eyes.

Rufous Treepie.jpgSmall Minivet male.jpgIndian Grey Hornbill immature.jpg

Some other birds visited the tree quite infrequently, probably knowing of some other bounty in the forest besides this particular tree. Among them were the omnivorous Rufous Treepies, which visited to gobble up some fruits, and a harem of Small Minivets, looking for insects among the branches. Other visitors followed a strict schedule. Indian Grey Hornbills visited the tree only after the sun was well above our heads, and understandably preferred to feed on the fruits growing in the shade.

Eventually the fruiting of the tree terminated, and slowly the birds stopped visiting the tree. This is just a temporary farewell bid between the birds and the tree though, for the tree will soon have fruits once again and there will definitely be a barbet somewhere keeping an eye out for them.

Pranad Patil

Naturalist, Singinawa Jungle Lodge

Weaver Ants, and not Weaver Ants

Wandering about in the forested premises of Singinawa Jungle Lodge can be quite rewarding if you are interested in the smaller fauna. The forested patch, which is in continuation with the Kanha Tiger Reserve, is home to several amazing creatures. Some of these creatures carry a fearsome repute. Then there are others which are completely harmless, but dress up like the aforementioned formidable creatures.

Weaver Ants (Oecophylla smaragdina) are the all too familiar large-sized red ants you can find in a forest or in a garden. The social ants are quiet arboreal in nature, and can be mostly seen scaling barks or foraging through the canopy. Using the silk produced by the larvae, worker Weaver Ants bind together large leaves to form a nest, and hence they get the name. But a single nest, a large, globular structure of leaves bound together, is not the entire colony. A single colony can have multiple nests, spread over several trees, and can easily contain over half a million workers.

Weaver Ants.jpg

As is the case with any social ant species, the ants we see regularly, and are most familiar with, are the worker ants. In case of the Weaver Ants, there are two categories of workers. The bigger-sized workers, called major workers, carry the duties of foraging, defending and expanding the colony. Minor workers, smaller in size, mostly tend to the larvae and ‘milk’ small insects for honeydew.

Its the major workers which denizens of the forest are wary of. Marching through the canopy or on the forest floor, soldier Weaver Ants look for potential prey. Victims are bitten repeatedly and formic acid is sprayed on wounds, which causes extreme discomfort for us too. Working as a team, these soldiers are able to kill animals much bigger than themselves. It is this act that earns the ants the reputation of being dangerous.

For exactly this purpose, some other small critters want to look like a soldier Weaver Ant. Some spiders if fact have come very close to perfecting this mimicry. Several jumping spiders, belonging to the genus Myrmarachne, mimic ants. One in particular, mimics the soldier Weaver Ants. The aptly called Weaver Ant-mimic Jumping Spider or Kerrengga Jumping Spider (Kerrengga = Weaver Ant) (Myrmarachne plataleoides or Myrmaplata plataleoides) is difficult to tell apart from an actual Weaver Ant soldier at first glance. Spiders belonging to this group even move their first pair of legs like the antennae of an ant to complete their mimicry. The jumping spider gains protection from its predators because of it looks; no predator would want to attack a Weaver Ant for the fear of more of them being close by.

Weaver Ant-mimic Jumping Spider.jpg

But there is another spider which mimics the soldier Weaver Ant for more devious reasons. This is the Ant-like Crab Spider (Amyciaea cf. forticeps). Just like the jumping spider, this spider also mimics the soldier Weaver Ant. This spider not only moves close to marching soldier ants, but when an opportunity presents, it grabs one to feed on as well. Thus, the Ant-like Crab Spider not only gains protection from the marching ants, but also gets its food.

Ant-like Crab Spider.jpg

Whatever is the reason for their mimicry, these spiders display an amazing step in evolution these animals have taken to ensure survival. But for any ardent nature-lover, these are simply objects of endless amusement.

The un-Common Onyx butterfly

The rich habitat of Kanha Tiger Reserve is home to several species of wildlife, including big and small animals. This lush habitat runs into the premises of Singinawa Jungle Lodge, and hence our lodge also plays an abode to several of these big and small creatures. In an effort to enrich our resort grounds further, we have even developed a small butterfly garden (the Butterfly Habitat), one of our wildlife-oriented several projects. The selection of plants planted in the Butterfly Habitat enables the butterfly species found in and around Kanha to complete their life-cycle with ease, simultaneously allowing us to watch and study these beautiful creations of Mother Nature.

Recently, while taking a walk in the resort premises, I noticed a small butterfly fluttering about. I immediately realized that this was not a commonly seen butterfly in the area (although I was not able to identify it immediately), and quickly clicked a photo with my mobile. Unfortunately, before I could get my camera, the butterfly took to its wings and disappeared in the dense forest canopy.

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I referred to the butterfly field guide we have in our library and came to the conclusion that this was a butterfly named Common Onyx. The butterfly was mentioned to be distributed in the Western Ghats and in the Himalayan mountains, and nowhere near Central India. Once I had the identity of the butterfly, I even checked an online portal, www.ifoundbutterflies.org, and the distribution as mentioned was marked as mentioned in the book.Map of Distribution.png

I shared the exciting information with my fellow naturalists, and with their help, shared the record with some butterfly experts. The butterfly was identified as the Western Ghats subspecies, and the record was immediately uploaded on the online portal. A screenshot of the distribution map of the species from the same portal shows a single spot in Central India now, the first record of the not so common Common Onyx from our lodge.

With all the advances in science and the knowledge we have build up, Mother Nature still manages to throw in some surprises now and then.
Sachin Sharma
Naturalist
Singinawa Jungle Lodge
Kanha National Park

 

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