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Little Kwara, Kwando Lagoon, Kwando Lebala, Nanzhila Plains, September 2011


Safaridude

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Safaridude

Nanzhila Plains Camp

 

How many times have we felt we were born too late? What it must have been like, for example, to experience the Ngorongoro Crater before the vehicle became a common species there. What it must have been like to see the migration of black wildebeests on South Africa’s highveld before the great slaughter for their skins. What it must have been like to eavesdrop on great white hunters gathered at the Stanley Hotel bar in Nairobi…and so on.

 

The Nanzhila Plains area in Kafue National Park is one such place that evoked that exact sentiment when I visited in September ’09. Nanzhila revealed glimpses of the past in carefully controlled doses, leaving me to conclude that I, born too late, had missed it. Well, now having visited for the second time, I am not so sure…

 

So, here I am in September ’11 on a charter flight from Livingstone northbound to the Ngoma airstrip inside Kafue National Park. Back in the day, I would have flown on a much cheaper scheduled flight to Ngoma. The flight would have been cramped with visitors eager to see Zambia’s premier park of that time. The legendary Norman Carr would have been the warden of Kafue… or perhaps by the time the scheduled flights began operating, he had gone off to Luangwa. At any rate, Kafue drew more visitors than Luangwa back in those days. And for good reason… there would have been massive herds of buffalos and smaller herds of wildebeests and zebras all being pursued by predators – all very conspicuous on the two dry season concentration areas – the Busanga Plains in the north and the Nanzhila Plains in the south. There would have been fewer villages along the flight path – perhaps you could spot lots of game along the way to the park unlike now. But once over the park boundary, it would have been evident then as it is now why the Nanzhila Plains area is yet another one of Africa’s blessed places. We are flying over a series of roughly parallel green swaths that come together and meet in a big circular ring in front of us. The green swaths represent grassy drainage lines (locally called dambos) breaking up the monotony of miombo woodlands. The circular ring is the Nanzhila Plains proper (let’s call it “the Plains”), bisected by the Nanzhila River which collects the trickling discharges from the various drainage lines. Together, the dambos and the Plains represent a meeting place for the spectacular miombo animals and birds with the more customary savannah ones.

 

A discerning safari traveler can appreciate this “meeting place” even without looking at animals. Benson, who is practically a professional botanist, is amazed at the variety of tree species we encounter in a two-hour drive from Ngoma to Nanzhila Plains Camp. He would count 42. The species include many that are much more at home in other parts of Africa. It is as if a group of elephants from various parts of Africa congregated at this “meeting place” long ago and took a giant collective dump.

 

When Benson and I “adventured” to this relatively forgotten place back in ’09, it was planned mostly out of curiosity. We had both known that at some point in the '90s, the southern part of Kafue became “poached out”. A respected walking safari guide ceased operating in the area then. A self-driver in the late '90s who camped at Nanzhila reported of not seeing any game, much less hearing anything overnight. Thankfully, Steve Smith, armed with a few bucks and indelible memories of his childhood holidays in Kafue, tendered for the then derelict site and built Nanzhila Plains Camp in 2006. In ’09, our “adventure” yielded some surprisingly good sightings, including lion, cheetah, wild dog, sable, roan, bush pig and a good assortment of birds – all pulse-quickening, high quality sightings – but in fleeting doses.

 

Then began a real push to conserve the area. Nanzhila Plains Camp sponsored a first ever off-season (rainy season lasting from November to April) anti-poaching effort during the ’09 – ’10 season. Then, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), along with the Zambian Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) and Nanzhila Plains Camp, led an anti-poaching and fire management effort starting in late ’10. The result, I am happy to report, is an astounding improvement in the quality and quantity of game.

 

On the way from Ngoma to Nanzhila, there is a giant dambo, called the Shakalongo Plain, where good game is always found. After Shakalongo, the road goes through some serious woodland with restricted visibility. At the junction of the Kalenje guard post, however, the vegetation changes decisively. A slight descent from the guard post lands you onto the Plains (a 400 sq. km2 grassland bisected by the Nanzhila River and dotted with termitaria and palm trees). The most conspicuous animal on the Plains is the common (or southern) reedbuck. Merely two years ago, these reedbucks would high-tail at a distance while letting out their distinctive warning whistles. Now, they (1) seem to have at least doubled in number; and (2) just sit under the shade of a termite mound chewing the cud while watching us with indifference. The same goes for the impalas. In just two years? It almost doesn’t make sense. Oribis abound as well out in the open. Waterbucks gather around the Nanzhila River, which is reduced to a series of shrinking pools this time of year. Waterbucks were never shy here, and big males (unusually dark, I might add) pose proudly. Greater kudus emerge from the tree line to feed on termitaria vegetation, gliding from one mound to the next. I will never forget the sight of one particular male two years ago panicking into full stride as he saw us from more than a thousand meters away. On this trip, about half the kudu groups would be approachable, and none would panic. Elephants, however, still keep their distance. Zebras and wildebeests are still scant and remain shy. My guess is that unlike most animals of Kafue, elephants, zebras and wildebeests disperse outside the park during the rains where they encounter poaching.

 

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Nanzhila Plains

 

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Common Reedbuck

 

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Waterbuck

 

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Greater Kudu

 

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Wildebeests and Lichtenstein's Hartebeests

 

Nanzhila Plains Camp is a comfortable bush camp. It is a bit of a throwback in that there is nothing fancy – just sensible comfort. The vehicles are charmingly creaky, the food is simple but excellent, and the hosts (Brad and Ruth) are endearing. The place is frozen in time, really. If someone gave me a million bucks to upgrade Nanzhila Plains Camp, I wouldn’t spend a dime.

 

Aside from the Plains, there are three other noteworthy areas to be explored. The first one is Chilenje, a watering point north of camp that is an offshoot from the Plains near a miombo tree line. The approach to the watering point unfolds mysteriously, as a sand ridge obscures the pool until the last moment. Lichtenstein’s hartebeests and zebras water… though quite shy. In ’09, we saw wild dogs watering here.

 

The second area is Mubi Pools, south of camp. There are two ways to get to Mubi. One is a long ride through the Plains, and the other is a shorter route through a mopane forest. Because grass becomes sparse in the mopane during the dry season, there is very little game in the mopane this time of year. Once you break out of the mopane, the road runs along a series of narrow dambos dotted with numerous small pools. Splendid examples of camelthorn trees mix with miombo (quite an unusual mix). Signs of elephants and lions abound, and in fact, many sightings of lion this season have been at Mubi.

 

The last but not least… the western woodlands. West of camp, the Plains are no longer, and miombo woodlands alternating with open dambos takes over. This area avoids the problem that plagues most miombo environs from good game viewing: too much miombo and not enough dambo. Each of these numerous dambos is like an elongated amphitheater, bordered on two sides by tree lines that are on slightly elevated grounds. Some dambos have fissures running down the middle, where water collects. Because of the high water table in the area, fresh shoots have sprouted after an early burn. This is an ideal setup for miombo animals such as sable, roan and Lichtenstein’s hartebeest. They tend to graze out in the open mid-morning and then again in the late afternoon, resting in the woodland in between. About a 45-minute drive from camp on this western side, there is a 16-km loop called the Mafuta Loop. Mafuta means “fat”, but it might as well be “phat”. It is the most productive 16 km stretch of miombo I have ever been through. In each of the three excursions through Mafuta, we would have multiple sightings of sable, roan, kudu, Lichtenstein’s hartebeest and wildebeest. Along with eastern Hwange, the western woodlands at Nanzhila must be the best place to view sable.

 

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Sable

 

One morning we encounter a bachelor herd of seven sable bulls at Mafuta. Sable bulls are evicted from the herd at around three years of age, and they form bachelor groups until they are ready (around six years of age when they fully mature) to challenge territorial bulls for mating rights. Three of the seven bulls appear to be fully mature, with the other four not too far behind. A nice cool morning with plenty of green grass to eat should be blissful, but instead it is a theatre for testosterone-induced hooliganism. Not a minute goes by without the bulls engaging in a battle of supremacy. Often, they get down to their knees, ducking their heads to make better use of the sharp horns to stab each other. One particular bull, the biggest one of the bunch, is a sure bet to take control of a breeding herd soon. He, the heaviest of horn and most aggressive in posture, generally trails the herd when it moves: he is already practicing herding behavior. Perhaps bored of imposing his will with his horns, he suddenly breaks into a full sprint chasing one of his subordinates. After an inordinate amount of time being chased, the pursued lets out a squeal that reverberates through the woodland. The squeal (sables are supposed to be basically silent) perplexes even Benson. (I would later ask Dr. Richard Estes about this, and he admitted that he has only heard a sable squeal once in all his years spent researching sable.)

 

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Bachelor Herd

 

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The Chase

 

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Fighting

 

An interesting day excursion is the Lake Itezhi-Tezhi area. A two-hour drive north from Nanzhila lands you in a totally different biome – with the lake, narrow floodplains surrounding it, and brushy vegetation surrounding them. Hippos and crocs are easily seen on the lake, and hundreds of impalas and pukus (not occuring south of Itezhi-tezhi) graze the lakeshores. We take lunch at the Konkamoya Lodge, which is set on a particularly perfect stretch of the lake.

 

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Pukus, Lake Itezhi-tezhi

 

The Nanzhila area is excellent for odd, interesting species. Servals are seen on every night drive (including one on a shrew kill) and even on two day time drives. Three different civets, a honey badger on a long sprint to nowhere, the diminutive Sharpe’s grysbok, bush pigs, and a couple of flocks of the endemic black-cheeked lovebirds round out some of the unusuals.

 

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Serval

 

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Serval on a shrew kill

 

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Civet

 

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Sharpe's Grysbok

 

So, is Nanzhila a specialty area that appeals merely to the safari connoisseur? Not so fast. Steve Smith had never seen a male lion in the immediate area until this year. Now, there are four known male lions in the area. Nanzhila has always been good for cheetah and wild dog. In fading light one evening, we encounter a mother cheetah and cub near Mafuta. Wild dogs hadn’t been seen since May, but this is likely due to their denning far away from the newly intensified lion activity. (Indeed, a pack of 19 dogs, with 10 pups are seen in late October returning to the Plains.) Signs of leopard are everywhere. One is spotted by a staff member in the middle of the day while driving into camp.

 

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Cheetahs

 

Fittingly, lions surround my chalet just as I hit the sack our last night. Benson, who is still sitting by the campfire, shines his torch on a lioness who is merely 15 meters from my doorsteps. Leaves rustle near the side of the chalet. As I would later find out, the rustling is caused by a big male lion looking at me through a wire mesh “window” of the chalet. Though I cannot see him in the darkness, his face is only a few feet from mine, causing me to get a whiff of rancid meat he was feeding on. From the poached out days of the '90s, Nanzhila has come a long way. It is within a few feet – sniffing distance – of becoming a prime wildlife destination again. Much of it will depend on the effectiveness of the current conservation projects. The “easy” part, if you will – resource protection – is being executed, but long-term conservation objectives will not be met unless the communities surrounding the park are engaged. TNC, ZAWA and Nanzhila Plains Camp are trying to do just that. And if successful, I will have been born just at the right time.

Edited by Safaridude
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Safaridude

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Lioness from my chalet

 

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Sable

 

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Fish Eagle

 

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Zebras

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Sangeeta

I just knew it!! I knew you were going to put something into this report that would throw off my nicely developing "other" plans, and here it is :)

 

Nanzhila Plains will hopefully help Kafue into becoming a destination unto itself, in combination with Busanga.

 

Your geographical descriptions are so vivid, Safaridude. I had an aerial view in my mind when I was reading it. I too wish we could go back in time, though not the white hunter time. Wish that particular time had never occurred at all.

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madaboutcheetah

Brilliant!!!!!!

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ZaminOz

WOW thanks safari dude! That brought some childhood memories flooding back! I have not seen that area since the early 80s.

It is looking good!

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Safaridude

I too wish we could go back in time, though not the white hunter time. Wish that particular time had never occurred at all.

 

Just eavesdrop to hear about all the wild places they've been to... that's all...

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Safaridude

ZaminOz, do you have any stories, recollections, or even better, photos from the '80s in Kafue? That would be wonderful.

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Safaridude

Tanya,

 

As far as I know, there are two basic choices at Nanzhila Plains... (1) full board or (2) camping -- off to the side of the property.

 

With the full board option, you have a choice of a chalet or tent. They are basically the same inside... just a matter of "shell" preference. The Nanzhila Plains property overlooks a lagoon. Pretty much on the other side of the lagoon (I would guess less than 1km) is a campsite that you may rent. That site is ordinarily for self drivers, but you have the option of coming to dinner at the main area.

 

I am not aware that you can camp out at Chilenje and so forth. I don't think you need to. If you have extra nights to spare, I would spend a night or two at Konkamoya (on Lake Itezhi-tezhi) because it is so different there.

 

In the Nanzhila area, the camp is very centrally located, so all of the places I've mentioned in the report are accessible. I also recommend the full board option, since the guides there are adept at patiently approaching some skittish animals -- and spotting game on night drives.

 

From camp to Chilenje is about 30 minutes of leisurely driving through the Plains. From camp to Mubi is about 45 minutes through mopane woodland. From camp to the Mafuta Loop is about 45 minutes through miombo woodland and dambos.

Edited by Safaridude
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ZaminOz

ZaminOz, do you have any stories, recollections, or even better, photos from the '80s in Kafue? That would be wonderful.

I do... but they are mostly from hunting safari days, so probably best kept to myself... :unsure:

 

My dad had a camp in Lunga Luswishi GMA (North of the Park) and another in Sichifulo GMA (South of the Park), so I spent many trips in the back of a landcruiser doing resupply or camp closure runs down through the lenth of the southern sector of the NP especially from Lake Itezhi-tezhi down to Dumdumwenze gate in the southern tip of the park (and then through Sichifulo to the camp). Got badly bogged around the Nanzhila Plains a wet season or two. On one occasion as a 12 year old had to walk about 5 or 6 kms alone back from the badly bogged landcruiser to tell the following supply truck to stop, armed with nothing but a hefty stick for protection... only to find the truck already bogged in cotton soil mud... and have to trudge back to the landcruiser (now in driving rain) to relay the news.

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Safaridude

Thanks everyone. Here are some extra photos from Nanzhila...

 

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A typical dambo west of camp

 

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Wattled Cranes

 

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Roan at Mafuta

 

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Lichtenstein's Hartebeests

 

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Puku at Lake Itezhi-tezhi

 

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Pelicans

 

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Bushbuck near Lake Itezhi-tezhi

 

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"Roaning away" on the Plains

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edited by Safaridude
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inyathi

It definitely looks like I need to go back to Kafue, Nanzhila looks amazing! Thanks for this great report

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Alex The Lion

Thanks for the great report! Pics are great!

 

From a photographic perspective, how would you rate southern Kafue?

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Safaridude

Well, Russell, I will give you a complicated answer...

 

From a landscape point of view, the Nanzhila Plains area is flat and resembles the Busanga Plains in northern Kafue. Although Busanga is a bit more open and more expansive. Away from the Plains, you do get undulations that you don't get at Busanga. The best time to visit (July - Oct), as you know, can be hazy (fires, dust)... but I kind of like that look sometimes. The miombo woodlands are seriously beautiful... you get so many different colors. This year, the whole of southern Africa, including Zambia, got a black frost in June/July, and the miombo colors were more drab than usual. Lake Itezhi-tezhi is a bit reminiscent of Lake Kariba -- huge and with dead tree limbs sticking out of the water.

 

Birds... Kafue is generally great for raptors, I find. Especially the south... apparently due to the condition of the soil, there are lots of rodents (and I noticed hundreds of spring hares), so it's a haven for birds of prey. If you are willing to patiently sit at a hide near a pool, you have a good chance of getting photographs of black-cheeked lovebirds, an endemic species found only from the Nanzhila area down to Vic Falls.

 

Animals... predators and elephants are still shy. In '09, a pair of cheetahs ran away from us. This time, a mother and cub still kept their distance but let us photograph them from a distance. I didn't see lions during the day (only at night in camp) on this trip, but apparently they are relaxing. Brad, the camp manager, showed me a video of a couple of very relaxed males. A lioness and cub I saw in '09 disappeared into the bush as they saw us. The wild dogs I saw in '09 were relaxed and very approachable. But predator sightings and photographing are not as reliable as, say, in Botswana or Luangwa. It is changing though... and that's exciting. Most sables and some roan were very relaxed.

 

All in all, it's probably the best representative miombo environ to be photographing... as you know, it's really a different area so you can't really compare. I would say not a place for reliable close-ups of iconic African species -- yet. It all depends on further conservation work.

Edited by Safaridude
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Sangeeta

I too wish we could go back in time, though not the white hunter time. Wish that particular time had never occurred at all.

 

Just eavesdrop to hear about all the wild places they've been to... that's all...

 

I hear you. I seem to have lost all all perspective on this topic myself :( Trying get off my bandwagon on this one...

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Atravelynn

I don't know about the timing of your birth, but your timing with the sable herds was perfect!

 

 

"If someone gave me a million bucks to upgrade Nanzhila Plains Camp, I wouldn’t spend a dime." They need to slap that statement on their promotional materials!

 

Nice to read some encouraging things about Kafue.

 

 

 

Excellent report as always, Safaridude!

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Super LEEDS

Great report and pics, SafariDude. Thank you.

 

Maybe a separate thread, "when WOULD you have liked to have been born?". For me, it would have been so I could have met Corbett doing his thing in the hills of India.

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Super LEEDS

Ooh, that might get TOO deep, Tanya!

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Safaridude

Maybe a separate thread, "when WOULD you have liked to have been born?". For me, it would have so I could have met Corbett doing his thing in the hills of India.

 

Well, it's simple for me... for the purpose of safari travel, say, 300-400 years ago would have been ideal, with the proviso that I would have the full complement of today's technology at my disposal (vehicle, aircraft, digital camera equipment, a good cool box for sundowners, and ingredients to make banoffee pie for dessert).

 

Luckily, the places I visited on this trip... I do believe they are still functioning as intact ecosystems. They are not perfectly preserved, but they are relatively well (in the case of Nanzhila/southern Kafue area, it is not all the way back yet, but on its way hopefully). So, I do think "the right time" is still now. If one wanted to be a stickler about it, northern Botswana was probably slightly "better" in the '80s and '90s. But I do think that it's mostly about ebb and flow. Large scale movements of game still occur uninhibited, and it's just a matter of time before the game rocks again. From the stories I hear and what I've read, Kafue was much better in the old days (the '60s - '70s), but so much conservation efforts are in motion now... I can't wait to see how things go the next 5 -10 years.

Edited by Safaridude
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Safaridude

.... I just Googled "banoffee pie" (the best safari dessert for my money -- befitting of a safari food item because it can actually be dangerous to make it), and it was invented in 1972, so the '50s wouldn't work for me unless my proviso ("the full complement of today's technology at my disposal...") was satisfied.

 

Sort of hijacking my own thread here... I think I will start a safari food thread...

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madaboutcheetah

You need heck of a lot of patience with those 3! In 2009, when they brought down a Tsetsebe we assumed that they would stay put for a couple of days close by to digest their meal (they had consumed a lot of it and their bellies were hanging as far as it's possible for them to hang) ....... not to be! They walked with the moon scent-marking and we found them some 10 kms further the next day when they chose to spend the day sleeping. Off they went, again .......... on Patrol with the moon!!! Needless to say, they digest pretty quickly and if you are lucky they will put on a show!

 

I remember banoffee Pie being on the Lebala menu some time ago. Toffee and banana or something like that with a buiscuit base?

Edited by madaboutcheetah
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Safaridude

Indeed Hari... regarding banoffee. It is a dessert befitting the culture of Kwando Safaris. It can be dangerous to make if you want to make it right. You must boil a can of condensed milk for 2-3 hours. If the can is not properly submerged, it can explode -- with very bad consequences to the chef!

 

Interesting to read that they saw two different groups of dogs at Lebala.

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madaboutcheetah

There has been another pack besides the selinda pack that comes into the lebala zone from the mopane. Their den site was found both in 2008 and 2010. The pack has not been too successful, unfortunately.

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