crocodile on a limb

A juvenile Slender-snouted crocodile tries to escape notice, remaining motionless as we pass in a pirogue. Perhaps a frog or bird, or fish swimming below might be fooled into thinking he is part of the tree limb. We had more than a minute to make our photographs before he tired of the attention and dived beneath the waters of the Bongo River. The Bongo River forms the western boundary of Moukalaba-Doudou National Park and is one of the major rivers supplying water to N’Dogo Lagoon.

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wedding, wedding, baptism, wedding, soirée…

Waiting in Owendo. The groom’s family and relatives wait to hear that they can arrive at the bride’s family home for the traditional ceremony.

September 11 and 12: Lisa and I were invited to a wedding in Libreville. The groom, Hervé, had been working for Smithsonian at the Rabi Forest Monitoring Plot on the botany team, and would be leaving soon to pursue a Ph.D. at a university in the USA. Cheryl and Hervé planned to marry on Friday afternoon in a traditional Gabonese wedding at the bride’s family residence in Owendo, a port town south of Libreville along the Estuaire du Komo. On Saturday, the civil wedding would take place at Hotel Ville de Libreville, followed by a church wedding in Libreville at Notre Dame des Apôtres. The church wedding would include the baptism of a new family member. Later in the evening, a soirée and dance would take place at Arche de l’Alliance.

Day 1. A traditional wedding  is very theatrical, with lots of waiting, as the bride and her family arrange to receive the groom and his family. We arrived at the carrefour in Owendo at 11am, and waited for an hour to gain permission to arrive outside the bride’s family home, where we waited for another hour for permission to enter through the gates and into the garden surrounding the home. Once seated in the garden, the uncles representing bride and groom began a formal but lively conversation on center stage, to determine the value and extent of the dowry needed to promote the wedding.

The bride arrived partway through the negotiations between bride’s and groom’s uncles, taking a seat on her ceremonial stool facing center stage. She sat quietly among her family until both sides came to agreement on a suitable dowry, not only for the couple, but for related villages and families. It took several hours to accumulate the food and drink, cooking utensils, fabrics, hand tools, and money.

Once the dowry has been accepted, the groom’s family celebrates. The groom is finally allowed to enter into the ceremony, escorted in a lively, dancing procession. The groom eventually takes a seat with the bride’s family and the bride sits with the groom’s family. More celebrating follows, and picture taking, and later everyone sits to share a delicious meal.

Day 2. Following the civil ceremony at Hotel Ville de Libreville, the bridal party assembles on the steps of Notre Dame des Apôtres.

The groom’s mother and aunt take a seat in the front row of the church and wait patiently for the baptism and wedding to begin. The choir is practicing, filling the church with beautiful music. Children are playing outside in the neighborhood, their laughter drifting in through church doors. The bride and groom, newly married in the civil ceremony two hours earlier, now wait in the air-conditioned comfort of their chauffered vehicle until everyone has arrived. I, on the other hand, have been wandering through the church and garden, looking for moments to capture, watching who is arriving, investigating the balcony, appreciating the choir practice, listening to children’s games…

An hour or so after our arrival, servers and priests appear at the church entrance, and the wedding party lines up for a procession down the center aisle to be seated at the front of the church. A baptism, a church wedding, holy communion, another procession to present gifts to the church, and now the third wedding in two days is complete. The wedding procession returns to the steps of the church for pictures and refreshments.

Thinking we had several hours to relax and perhaps take a nap, we were intending to take a taxi to our hotel, but were encouraged to accompany the groom’s mother, by chartered bus filled with joyous singing and clapping, to her home for more celebrating and eating.

Later that evening, the soirée at Arche de l’Alliance, scheduled to begin at 7pm, began filling with guests around 9pm, with dinner served no later than 10:45pm. Cake (complete with mini-fireworks) and champagne followed, with partying and dancing into the early hours of Sunday.



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whales on the open sea

Lisa and myself were heading for Sette Cama by 7:30 on Sunday morning, with Heiko driving, behind the wheel of his Toyota. A rendezvous was organized for a 9:30 departure from Shell Hut on Zuzu, a 2X150HP, 23-foot Gulfstream piloted by Daniel Hooft. Our plan was to maneuver through the N’Dougou breakthrough out into open sea to look for Humpback whales.

Dorsal fin of a Humpback whale breaks the surface. A commercial fishing trawler in the distance.

Generally, these whales arrive and congregate in Gabonese coastal waters, often within 20 kilometers of beach, in June, following the Namibian and Angolan coastline from subantarctic feeding grounds. Humpback whales tend to remain until September, mating and calving in the shallow tropical waters of the continental plateau. When migration resumes, some return south to the Antarctic region, while others continue on to the islands of São Tome, Principe and Bioko. In the late 1990′s, the International Whaling Commission reported the population in the Southern Hemisphere to be around 40,000 to 60,000 individuals. Gianna Minton cites data from 2001-2005 that indicates approximately 8000 whales migrate along the coast of Gabon.

Racing dolphins surface alongside Zuzu.

A whale pokes its head out of water, showing a white-striped chin with beard of barnacles. The bumps on the tip are mostly hair follicles.

By 10:30 we were joined by a few pods of dolphins, some zipping alongside the boat, others coming up from below to leap out front as we rocked and rolled on the swells several kilometers offshore. A trip such as this is not kind to those susceptible to seasickness. On the distant horizon, we could occasionally see a plume of white spray, good indication of a whale breathing at the surface. Several appeared to be within a few kilometers, and we headed in for a closer look. This area of the Atlantic is a wide shelf of mostly sand bottom, varying in depth between 8 and 40 meters. It is full of life. Often enough, we could see a fin suddenly slice above the waves, mostly dolphins, but also others I did not recognize. Such a mystery, what is happening below.

A whale rolls on the surface of the sea some 10 kilometers off the coast of Loango National Park. According to Gianna Minton, in her Report on Gamba Area Marine Surveys, the whales recorded in the survey were most often in waters between 9 and 38 meters depth.

The whales we encountered were in small family groups. The groups would mostly roll in the waves, stretching a flipper skyward before slapping it to sea. Occasionally a head would bob out of the surface, as if having a look at our boat. We saw a few whales further out near the continental shelf leaping above the horizon, resulting in an enormous splash, but this behavior seems to be less common at the end of migration season.

A Humpback whale dives beneath the waves.

Dan lands a carangue with Heiko ready to assist, in the sea before the N’Dougou breakthrough.

We were able to spend perhaps 90 minutes with the whales before returning to lagoon. It was approximately midway between high and low tides. Because it is the end of dry season, water levels in the lagoon are especially low, making the return through the breakthrough an increased risk for hitting sandbars or rocks. We took time for some trolling as we headed back, hooking into a powerful mystery-fish that made a beeline course for Brazil, hardly stopping before breaking the line at reel end. Dan managed to land a modest carangue before we entered the lagoon. A few runs in and out of the lagoon breakthrough for Heiko and myself provided some experience negotiating waves and sandbars. It is hoped that next season we will have an additional vessel, “L’Etoile de la Nyanga”, a 24-foot Boston Whaler, repaired and ready for more whale-watching experiences.

Bottlenose dolphin bids farewell to Zuzu as we re-enter the lagoon.

The generosity of Lucy and Daniel Hooft, who give so unselfishly of their time and resources, make opportunities like this possible. Might we all learn by their example and become better explorers and stewards of this paradise we are privileged to call home.

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scheduled for execution

Reports have been circulating about an elephant being aggressive toward residents in Yenzi. Rumor was, this elephant had a wound to the side of his head. Unfortunately, both accounts may be true, and I got a call to make some pictures of the elephant when he was spotted entering Yenzi Friday afternoon.

The elephant on the left, photographed here in November of 2013, is scheduled to be killed next week, after being critically wounded by what appears to be a gunshot wound to the head.

It so happens, this is an elephant we know and have held in awe and admiration for years here in Gamba. He was featured with his companion in “elephant’s dance”, ( posted back on November 5 of 2013. He was a gentle creature, and tolerant of my approaches to photograph him. Mutual respect.

It was sad and frustrating to see this same elephant now inflicted with a terminal wound. From the pictures, it appears that the wound to his head was likely from a shotgun slug. The hole, blasted into his head, oozes his life and spirit, and probably makes him irritable to say the least. But I didn’t see unprovoked aggression. I was able to follow him through camp for almost an hour, at a respectful distance, and with him aware of my presence. If it is truly a bullet wound, the lead ball lodged in his skull may be his death sentence.

A common sight in the Yenzi community during mangoe season, this elephant will be shot until dead next week.

I learned tonight that he is scheduled for execution beginning next Tuesday, when, presumable he will be shot until he is dead. Euthanized. Then likely he will be cut to pieces and distributed to the local population so they can savor the success of the hunt. Elephants are known to mourn their dead, to stand vigil for days, then later return to move the bones to a meaningful location. He and his family will not be allowed this respectful end to his life.

Another story, perhaps related, perhaps not. A local poacher was killed near Yenzi last week when he was attacked by an elephant.  According to various sources, he had been poaching in the night with two other individuals when, sometime in the early morning, the two companions decided to go home. The poacher continued to hunt in the area of Pointe Dick road, and sometime in the early morning made his final telephone call to plead for help. He had been gored by an elephant. He was found the following day, disembowled and with a tusk-inflicted wound to the heart. A shotgun was found nearby. The local community was saddened by this news. They remembered him as a family man. The local officials added that he was a known elephant “hunter”, and had been “hunting” for years. Family man by day, elephant poacher by night.

I don’t wish a cruel or painful death to any creature, man or beast. But I do believe in karma. How unfortunate, that the elephant will not recover.

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chameleon on the doorstep

Lisa spotted the chameleon sitting on a sandal outside our kitchen door last Friday. He appeared oblivious to our attention, frozen in a buddha-like pose. Not really blending in to his surroundings, the lime-green lizard was looking a little vulnerable, so I removed him to the vegetation at the front of the house. He seemed to find this more appealing and spent a few minutes exploring the branches and leaves before climbing up and out of sight, disappearing into a composition of green.

A Flap-necked chameleon, common in the Gamba area, crawls through the garden vegetation.

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one elephant at a time

In what would have been an idyllic scene not uncommon in Gabon, an elephant crosses a savanna near the coast. A closer look reveals a snare constricted around the left foreleg, causing severe pain, infection, limited mobility, immeasurable suffering, and death in the coming weeks. Snaring animals of any kind is illegal in Gabon.

Elephant injured by a snare crossing a savanna near Mayonami.

Snaring elephants is often retaliation by plantation owners that have slashed and burned elephant habitat to plant crops like bananas, maize, and manioc. Many of these plantation owners are absentee, working in villages and towns during the week. They return to their plantations on the weekend to find their crops raided by elephants.

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camera trap. August 2015

August 1, 8:40am. An elephant stampede crosses a trickle of stream near Gamba.

August 3, 9:00am. A young male Sititunga warily approaches a camera trap near Gamba.

August 9, 6:22am. A large male Sititunga at a flooded river crossing.

August 9, 8:30am. The young Sititunga is back six days later.

August 12, 5:30am. A leopard follows a track into deep forest, near Gamba. Two other leopards follow this same track, one, a juvenile, the same morning, and another larger cat three nights later.

August 17, 1:21pm. A male Mandrill follows the same track near Gamba.

August 18, 3:22pm. A large male Chimpanzee pauses along a trail in front of a camera trap as another forages in the distance.

August 18, 3:23pm. A pair of Chimpanzees linger before a camera trap on a forest track near Gamba.




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Moukalaba-Doudou gorillas

Thursday, August 6.    The flush of adrenaline in the presence of big wildlife revitalized spirits as we neared the end of a long trek through the forest of Moukalaba-Doudou. Returning to camp late in the afternoon, a large gorilla emerged from the edge of forest onto our path 40 meters ahead. Having trekked 14 kilometers on a search for Group Gentile, a habituated family group of 22 gorillas, we were thrilled to have finally caught up with them. They had been circling us all afternoon, evidenced by fresh knuckle-prints and feces turning up in the dry forest riverbed. Our mission was to evaluate Group Gentile to determine a potential for tourism. A 14 kilometer trek for a possible glimpse of the family would not make for a rewarding experience for most tourists.

A small river through the big forest has dried, creating an avenue for wildlife.

The young silverback continued across the path, followed by several females. In the near distance, the underlying vegetation began waving. We were all eyes as a juvenile gorilla came tumbling out of thicket in a clumsy cartwheel, trying to see us over his shoulder before vanishing into tall grass across the trail. Soon after, the enormous russet crown of Papa Gentile appeared above the grass border. Studying us for a moment, he started to cross, then backed for a second look before stepping across the trail, his sleek silver back shimmering in the soft dry season light. Regal is a term that comes to mind in describing the stride of Papa Gentile. He seemed to radiate a supreme confidence, from his long, powerful black arms, lustrous silver cloak, and heavily muscled, compact legs.

Tracker Gilles-Roger and Ando make a plan for the afternoon trek.

Not all forests tower overhead. Lush verdant herbaceous forests thrive where sun and water are plentiful.

We waited a few minutes longer to give the family time to move into the forest, since we were heading in the same direction and did not want to surprise them. It was late in the afternoon. Likely, the family would settle nearby for the night. The forest can be uncannily quiet, knowing beasts are present and at close range.

Graduate student Keiko from Kyoto University and Ando, coordinator for the gorilla habituation program, try to determine where the gorillas might be.

As we entered the forest, the trackers began clucking and grunting, sounds intended to put the gorillas at ease. The sounds indicate to the gorillas that we are nearby, and are part of the habituation process of communicating our location to the family. This is contrary to the practice of walking quietly when stalking non-habituated wildlife. The last thing we wanted was to bump into a surprised gorilla. Later that evening, from across the river, we could hear several episodes of chest-beating as the gorilla family sent notice, possibly to other families or other solitary males, that they had settled for the night.

The evening serenade of turacos was especially vivid echoing across the river as night fell. Great-blue turacos and Green turacos hurled their croaking laugh from high in the tree canopies. The peaceful buzz of crickets was punctuated by the odd wailing trill from some owl, followed later into the deepest darkness by the metronome bark of hammer bats, a soundscape for the imagination, made real in the Moukalaba-Doudou night.

Juvenile gorilla looking at the humans nearby.

Friday, August 7.     Morning arrived quickly with just a trace of light in the sky as a flock of Scaled francolins suddenly erupted in chorus at the edge of the forest. Like priming a rusted pump, they began with a series of raspy whoops developing into a spirited whistling cascade not unlike the plucking, tinny melody from an old hand-crank music box. First one, then another, then two from deep in the forest, then silence for a moment before it all began again. The partridge-like birds were scuttling across the forest floor, and soon faded into the distance. By this time the turacos were awake, and trying to sleep any further was hopeless.

Crossing the Moukalaba River by pirogue.

Back on the river, the trackers poled us across in a narrow, tipsy pirogue. Three chimpanzees sat motionless in the canopy of a towering tree at river’s edge. As we passed beneath, they hastily made their exit, swinging like acrobats from limb to limb before vanishing into thick understory. Particularly impressive was the female. Somehow, she had lost her left arm at the shoulder, but managed to skillfully maneuver through the tree with one arm and two legs before hopping to a flexible spring-pole bush that carried her, elevator style, to forest floor.

We picked up the trail of gorillas soon enough, though the trackers estimated we were several hours behind the family. If they were moving steadily, we may never catch them, but if they stopped to forage, perhaps….

Splitting into two groups, we attempted to get in front of their general direction, and by late morning, Jean René and Keiko radioed that they had been located. We approached several minutes later to see them, mostly obscured by heavy vegetation, feeding in several trees and sorting through the understory.

Gorilla feeding in a tree, stripping bark from young tree branches.

We watched for an hour before they moved on to a new set of trees where they established themselves for the rest of the morning. We had some opportunity to move along a trail to observe several individuals as they climbed through trees, snapping off limbs to strip and eat the bark. An infant clung to the side of a tree 10 meters above ground, looking unsure wether to be climbing or descending. A young male moved our direction, approaching within 15 meters, only to lie down for a nap.

Learning to climb, an infant gorilla appears unsure what to do next.

A gorilla napping on the forest floor keeps an eye on his human visitors.

Now and then, a growl from the silverback, hidden from view, drifted through the understory, letting everyone know who was in charge. Ninety minutes into this tranquil feeding and napping routine, they were on the move again. As we followed, several gorillas began ascending trees in another feeding zone. Juveniles climbed just above the understory to stare back at us before continuing into the trees. Some would climb to the top of the canopy 30 meters above.

By 3pm, we decided to return to camp. We had at least an hour’s walk ahead of us, then the pirogue to cross the river.

Waterbuck half-hidden on a savanna.

We were fortunate to come across a waterbuck, an impressive large antelope with curving, corrugated horns, studying us as we entered a savanna. And we discovered more gorilla sign near the river. It was possible there was another family of gorillas nearby, though perhaps by now they had moved through. As we left the river, a pair of Black-headed bee-eaters rose from a burned plantation to alight at the forest edge, their red eyes, contrasting with emerald and black and burnt-yellow plumage, glowing in the evening light.

Black-headed bee-eater on the edge of a plantation.

Another night of crickets, hammer bats, and who knows what left me less than rested by the time the francolins returned, clamoring to wake the turacos and all else.

Saturday, August 8.   We returned to yesterday’s location of the gorillas, but they were nowhere in sight. Walking loops through the forest attempting to intercept their trail was fruitless. Thinking perhaps they had moved north, we walked for several kilometers into a new forest tract, searching out a stand of Parasolier trees that had been fruiting and attracting primates. We surprised several chimpanzees perched in the open canopy. They retreated, swinging through the canopy with effortless grace. Finding evidence of recent gorilla sign, we circled again, but they appeared to have vanished. It is difficult finding their traces in the dry season. The leaf litter on the forest floor fails to hold their prints, and they are far-ranging to find enough to eat. By mid-afternoon, we decided to return to camp. Spending time with Group Gentile will have to wait for another day.

This gorilla family is currently part of ongoing research into gorilla habituation. At the moment, there is no provision or infrastructure to facilitate tourism at this location, though the results of this study will surely be important to the future of gorilla tourism in Gabon.

Chimpanzee perched in a parasolier, aka umbrella tree.

Looking up through the open canopy of parasolier trees.

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Mondah Forest

A beautiful rainforest experience is only a short drive up the coast from Libreville.

Between Libreville and Cap Estérias, Mondah Forest occupies approximately 10,000 hectaires of protected equatorial rainforest. Because of its proximity to the Libreville population, most mammals have been hunted out of existence, but the forest itself contains some magnificent stands of okoume, ozouga, alep and ilomba trees.

Students from schools in the Libreville area benefit from an environmental experience in Mondah Forest.

There are many hiking trails through the forest. Access and parking is along the route, at the sign for Bois des Geants entrance of Aboretum Raponda-Walker, between Libreville and Cap Estérias. The route is in very good condition, having been repaved recently. It is to your advantage to make arrangement before scheduling a visit. For a safe experience, a guide is required. Parcs Gabon administers the area.

Contact Anne Marie Ndong Obiang:, or Mathieu Ducroc, 07 98 29 75, email: to schedule a visit. Guides available by appointment include Fabrice Nzengue, tel: 05 57 71 36, and Narcisse Lembomba, tel: 04 69 49 73, and 02 14 63 84. There is no fee required to visit Mondah Forest, but if guides have facilitated a rewarding visit, a gratuity will be appreciated.

Future planning will include a canopy walk of several hundred meters between towering trees in the forest interior. Construction is possibly already underway, but will take several years to complete.  Nearby Cap Estérias is a pleasant, sleepy village worth a stop for a quick lunch or dinner at Ikenga Restaurant, located just off the main road through the village.

Guides from ANPN (Agence Nationale des parcs nationaux) work with botanists to classify trees in Mondah Forest.

Mondah Forest spills out to the Atlantic Ocean between Cap Santa Clara and Cap Estérias.

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Gorilla. Twice.

Hazy, soft lighting of dry season creates a more delicate rendering of tones in the forest.

The morning drive across Vera Plaines was cool, the hazy light of the dry season shifting the landscape to a palette of pastel blues and grays. Elephants, genets, and some kind of cat, larger than a domestic, have left their prints in the soft sand from the previous night. We puzzle over the cat tracks–young leopard? Golden cat? A mystery for now.

It is 8:30 when we finally arrive at the trailhead. Some unknown bird with a beautiful three-tone whistle calls from the forest edge. I haven’t heard this before. There is always something new to be seen or heard, and today is no exception.

It hasn’t rained for some time, and footprints from my last visit, though faint and pockmarked, are still visible in the sand along the trail. Sometime within the past 24 hours a herd of forest buffalo made a mess of the trail, tearing up the sand with their prints and leaving dung for us to avoid. The usual chimpanzee, gorilla, elephant and duiker prints were evident on the trail, and a recent set of leopard prints of impressive size follow the path. These are the first leopard prints I have seen on this trail in the few months I have been walking here.

Leopard prints, coming and going, in the sand on the track.

A Hinge-back tortoise eyes us with suspicion early on our trek. Had we been hunting, it would likely have ended up in a cooking pot. Deeper in the forest, Gianna spots a Galago along the trail. The agile little primate is off leaping through the trees before her camera can focus.

About 4 kilometers into the forest, Gianna feels the need for a bit of caffeine, and stops to pour a cup of tea from her thermos. The forest has been unusually quiet on this morning, and I can hear the metal “tink” of thermos to cup behind me. My attention is on a tree alongside the trail just ahead. A smallish tree ascends, tall and straight with no branches to a thick crown some 30 meters above the forest floor. I can hear a subtle rustling in the branches and what sounds like fruit dropping through the understory. Gianna becomes intrigued and leaves her tea to move in for a closer look. The canopy of this tree is exceedingly thick, with clusters of buttery-yellow fruits hanging heavy. Suddenly we see a hairy arm reach out from the leaves and return with a fruit.

A gorilla feeding on fruits in a tree canopy, shortly before he realizes we are watching.

Both of us whisper under our breath “gorilla!?” Hard to believe a gorilla could be so close and not have seen our approach. Eventually he shifts further out on a branch and his head comes into view. He is looking in our direction while sucking the flesh from a fruit. Within seconds he sees us. A scream shatters the stillness of the forest, not human, but somewhere between the squealing of a pig and the braying of a donkey. He explodes across the canopy, leaping through branches of a neighboring tree to forest floor, gone in the blink of an eye. We are left in an adrenaline fizz, wondering what was dream and what was reality. Taking a few moments to recompose, Gianna retrieves her tea and we slowly continue down the track, scanning the treetops with a new appreciation for how well concealed such a beast can be.

A fine mist begins to settle through the forest, hard to see without looking to the sky, making the trail on the clay hills slippery. The forest has grown older here, massive trees tower above and dominate the canopy. The enveloping mist increases to a light rain, and soon the forest is overcome with the constant drip-plop sound of water falling through leaves. A few butterflies take refuge beneath vegetation, popping out as we walk by. We find shelter below the canopy and enjoy a quick lunch before beginning our hike back to trailhead. The rain and accompanying sound-effect diminish our ability to see or hear wildlife in the area, and we return in quiet conversation. Passing the fruiting “gorilla tree” we agree to make a few pictures of the fruit for identification later. Gianna stops to make a note and I continue to search for a vantage to see the fruiting canopy better. Shortly into our quest, this same canopy explodes once again. A screaming, obviously bothered gorilla shimmies down the trunk, crashing off through the undergrowth. Again. We watch in disbelief, frustrated with our careless (and unprepared) assumption that he wouldn’t return.

Papilio butterfly at the side of the trail.

The rain is diminishing, and butterflies begin to appear in the freshened air above the trail. The intoxicating smell of lush vegetation has been revived and released in the brief rain. We strain to hear any shuffling and scampering in the forest, but the crunch of leaves has been dampened by the rain. A few Yellow-billed Turacos begin a cascade of call and response across kilometers of forest, and a Black-casqued Hornbill announces his presence with a rusty-hinge call from a nearby treetop. Our return through paradise, though never dull, is without further excitement.

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