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The Nguni: A Case Study

Jenny Bester, L.E. Matjuda, J.M. Rust and H.J. Fourie
Animal Improvement Institute, Private Bag x 2, Irene 0062, South Africa


The Nguni is a hardy breed uniquely adapted to the South African environment. Regarded as inferior in the past, it was decimated by government decree and its gene pool diluted through replacement and cross-breeding with exotic stock. The recent recognition of its adaptive traits led to its evaluation and development as a beef breed in the commercial sector. Simultaneously, a mistaken perception of the breed’s inferiority arose in the traditional sector, despite the fact that it was a low-maintenance breed ideally suited to the low-input farm systems of the communal farmer. This case study describes the breed and illustrates the potential of the Nguni as a beef breed in both extensive and intensive farming systems. A project with the required infrastructure and support systems reintroducing the hardy low-maintenance Nguni breed was initiated in selected communities. In the past, projects for the introduction of exotic cattle breeds into the communal sector invariably failed. This project included support systems, programmes for the improvement of management, a development programme and a marketing system to facilitate the sale of animals at market-related prices.

Thirty-five selected Nguni bulls were introduced into five communities in the Northern Province and six in the Eastern Cape Province. These communities had organized farmer groups that were willing to participate in a development scheme and contribute a minimal amount towards the maintenance of the bulls. A further supply of ten bulls per annum is available. Problems encountered included a lack of qualified staff to monitor the project and a collective lack of grazing, herd, reproductive and health management. Minimal infrastructure within the communal lands and a resultant lack of record-keeping were further constraints. In addition, the land tenure system aggravates the situation, as individuals often have neither right of possession nor the right of prescription for its use.

The project is still in its early stages and carries some associated risks. Certain assumptions were made at its inception. Among these are that the animals produced will be of market quality, that there are sufficient resources to support increased production and that there will be no major droughts or disease outbreaks. The success of the project also depends on the farmers themselves, as they will have to accept drastic changes to their current way of producing animals. The project is designed to show that the development of the Nguni breed in South Africa supports the concept of conservation through utilization in the traditional farming sector.


Iron Age nomads first introduced the Nguni cattle breed into South Africa in about 600 AD. These low-maintenance cattle were ideally suited to the communal farming systems of the settlers and, as far as can be established, remained relatively unaltered during the next millennium. The advent of European colonization in the middle of the nineteenth century and the subsequent acceptance of the colonial farmer as a role model led to the introduction of exotic breeds that eventually diluted and depleted the original gene pool of adapted livestock. This change was exacerbated by additional factors such as a change in the political arena, urbanization, the erosion of cultural beliefs and practices, and natural disasters. Prior to 1970, a demand for apparently superior breeds in the rural communities led to the haphazard introduction of exotic breeds into communal areas, but with little success.

During the twentieth century a unique structure was developed in the country, allowing the Nguni breed to enter the growing commercial sector, and extensive recording facilitated breed improvement. Thus, while the breed was improved in the commercial sector, it was being eroded in the rural areas. Fortunately, the inherent hardiness of the breed allowed it to survive and pure-bred animals are still found in limited numbers in rural communities.

The Nguni is now seen as a source of genetic material well suited to the management style and needs of the emergent black farmer who requires a relatively low-maintenance and relatively high-output animal. This case study attempts to show the value of the Nguni, gives an example of how the breed, after value adding in the commercial sector, is being reintroduced into communal cattle-farming systems and highlights some of the problems.

The study examines a project designed to introduce the adapted genetics of the Nguni into communal farming systems where erosion of the breed has occurred.



Until recently, it was thought that the domestication of Bos primiginius that gave rise to modern African cattle breeds took place in the Near East about 8000 BP (Epstein, 1971), although archaeologists had speculated on the likelihood of an area of domestication in North Africa (I. Plug, personal communication, 1994). Recent DNA studies confirmed this hypothesis and showed that the Nguni of South Africa could be considered an African taurine with a slight Zebu admixture that probably originated from bulls imported from the Arabian peninsula (Hanotte et al., 1998).

African records of domesticated cattle show that they were present in the Nile Valley by 400 BP (Epstein, 1971). Cattle migrated southwards from the northern regions of Africa with their owners as a result of stressors such as environmental pressure, war and barter. By 300 BC cattle were found in the Luangwa Valley in Zambia and by 300 AD settled communities with cattle were living in southern Africa, in areas of eastern Botswana, in Gauteng as far as the Hartebeespoort dam area, the eastern lowveldt and the coastal region of Natal (Plug, 1980).

During their passage from the north of the continent the animals were exposed to the harsh extremes of the climate and the tropical diseases of Africa. Natural selection favoured those animals genetically suited to this hostile environment. Two separate migrations occurred in the country, one bringing the cattle into the eastern regions, the other into the western regions. Adaptations to the climate of these areas resulted in the development of different ecotypes. Both Nguni ecotypes and landrace breeds such as the Afrikaner can be separated on the basis of their genetic distancing (A. Kotzé, personal communication, 2000) (Appendix VI).

A second phase of introduction into South Africa occurred during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when settlers brought their European farm animals into the country. The colonists often regarded the cattle owned by the Nguni people as inferior. They appeared to perform poorly (as a result of overstocking) and appeared less uniform, having a wide range of colours and colour patterns that gave the breed the appearance of an indiscriminate mixture of breeds. This perception of inferiority was adopted by the Nguni people, who viewed the high-input, highly productive exotic breeds as superior to their own and adopted the colonists’ farming practices as their role model. The fact that the Nguni was able to survive with minimal care was of secondary importance as resources were seemingly endless and supplementary feeding and stock remedies were relatively inexpensive.

This perception of inferiority led to the promulgation of an Act in 1934 in which populations of indigenous breeds and types were regarded as "scrub" (nondescript). Inspectors were empowered to inspect bulls in communal areas and to castrate them if regarded as inferior. Fortunately, the Act was only applied effectively during the first few years of its existence, as it proved unpopular with stockowners. It was only later that the value of the animals was realized and, in 1985, a committee was appointed to report on the desirability of having an in vitro germplasm bank for indigenous livestock and on the control of imported semen from exotic breeds (Hofmeyr, 1994).

It was only recently that scientific evidence showed that the Nguni performed well under optimal conditions while the exotics performed poorly under the prevailing management practices of communal systems (Scholtz, 1988). In 1992, the Convention on Biological Diversity was ratified, South Africa becoming a signatory in 1995. The focus of the conservation and utilization of this valuable resource of adapted livestock species, eminently suited to the farming systems of the communal farmer, has led to a Southern African Development Community/FAO/United Nations Development Programme initiative that has enabled the rescue and development of indigenous livestock breeds in the region.

The Nguni breed description

The Nguni is small to medium in size depending on the prevailing nutritional conditions. The depth is good and is accompanied by a moderate width. Mature cows have fairly short legs with good feet. The dewlap is medium-sized and thin. The cervico-thoracic hump is hardly noticeable in the mature cow but is fairly well developed in the full-grown bull. The barrel of the Nguni is of good length and strength, the rump is inclined to droop towards the tail and the rear quarter is light. The head is of good size with a flattish poll; it has a broad-dished forehead, widest between the eyes. The face is wide and straight to slightly convex in profile. The muzzle is broad and the ears have a "refined" look, being small with a sharp apex. In cross-section the horns are usually round and are noticeably lyre shaped in mature cows. Coats are soft, fine and glossy. The udder and teats are small to moderate (Brown, 1959). The Nguni are unicoloured or multicoloured - white, black, brown, grey, red. There are 80 different colour patterns that are either uniform, spotted or pied (R. Schroeder, personal communication, 1994).

The Nguni characteristics

The profile of the Nguni shows that it developed under a process of natural selection in a highly challenging environment and that it has the genetic potential to perform better under optimal production environments. It is a medium-frame animal with a measure of tick tolerance and disease resistance. The summer rainfall area of South Africa is characterized by major seasonal changes in both composition and quantity of grazing. Smaller animals require lower amounts of maintenance, which is more easily met by the available veldt (Frisch, 1973).

The mechanisms involved in tick tolerance are, as yet, not clearly understood although there is clear evidence of the adaptation (Spickett et al., 1989). Norval et al. (1988) estimated that the mean damage caused by each adult female brown ear tick (Rhipicephalus appendiculatus) counted on an animal in Africa to be 4.4 ± 0.8 g loss in live mass gain. This was confirmed by Spickett et al. (Appendix II). Regular dipping to prevent tick infestation is a costly exercise for the emergent farmer. As seen in Appendix II the Nguni, with its tolerance of ticks, shows less difference in weaning weight between dipped and undipped cattle (Scholtz et al., 1991). The movement of ears and tails may dislodge insects. Brown (1959) noted that Nguni cows moved their ears vigorously when flies irritated them in the region of the head. The flexible and long tail with a well-developed switch also assisted in removing irritating insects. In the same publication, Brown investigated the possibility that skin thickness and hair concentration had an effect on tick infestation, but with inconclusive results.

The Nguni has a great ability to maintain its condition in winter. This may be because of the maintenance of high blood urea when the nitrogen content of the pasture drops. As seen in Appendix II, the Nguni maintained a level of 13 mgs percent in winter while the blood urea levels of the Simmentaler fell to 7 mgs percent, approaching the minimum for proper nitrogen balance (Osler et al., 1993). However, the authors note that the ability to maintain body condition may be a result of adaptation to one or more stress factors.

As a selective grazer and browser, the Nguni is able to obtain optimal nutritional value from the available natural vegetation, thus enabling it to survive under conditions that bulk grazers such as the European cattle breeds would find extremely testing. Temperamentally, the Nguni is very docile - another characteristic of an animal in harmony with its total environment (Ramsay, 1985).

The Nguni also has adaptive traits such as walking ability, which enables it to walk long distances in search of grazing and water. It is also reported to be tolerant of extreme temperatures.

Statement of the problem

There is a general lack of adapted genetic material suited to the needs of the resource-poor cattle farmer. This problem is particularly acute in the Eastern and Northern Provinces where the original stock was predominantly Nguni or Nguni-type cattle. A recent Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) in communal communities in these provinces showed that the bull/cow ratio was too low, that the quality of bulls was substandard and that calving percentages were low. These problems stemmed from the erosion of the original adapted stock as a result of haphazard replacement or crossing with unsuitable high-maintenance exotic breeds. Exotic breeds tend to lack the adaptive traits necessary for survival and production in the rigorous environment of the communal farmer. These traits include tolerance of stressors such as ticks and tick-borne diseases, heat, drought and poor grazing. Furthermore, socio-economic restrictions have forced cattle farmers to buy their stock at slaughter-stock auctions. Established commercial farmers sell these cattle as slaughter animals because they have no value as breeding stock. The introduction of this inferior stock into communal farming systems is causing a serious degradation of the genetic resource base. An additional causative factor was poor nutrition, due mainly to bad management practices that had resulted in degraded pastures and soil erosion. Finally, the lack of an organized infrastructure prevented the transport of stock to markets where the animals could be sold at realistic market prices.

Historically, the low production and quality of calves in rural communities gave rise to a general lack of commercialization, as the numbers and quality of slaughter stock were not suitable for the commercial market. Farmers are thus forced to sell in local markets where prices are not market related, or to sell at low prices to speculators who feedlot the animals before selling them in the commercial market at market-related prices.

Long-term animal recording will allow for the identification of elite animals and general genetic improvement, thus reversing the present tendency to introduce inferior genetic material. This will provide the market with breeding bulls and cows. Combined, these benefits will result in increased production and productivity.

Details of the case study

The objectives of the project are to:

establish a superior genetic resource base;

facilitate the establishment of effective community management institutions;

develop agricultural production, marketing skills and opportunities;

provide a lasting improvement in the socio-economy of the rural communities;

conserve the genetic resources of the adapted Nguni cattle breed through sustainable utilization.

Bull selection

Successful commercialization in the communal areas requires a high offtake of early maturing calves. This increased production is dependent on factors such as low mortality and increased vigour. In the main, young bulls were selected on the basis of their breeding values. The general criteria for selection was for animals with a low birth weight, a high weaning weight and good maternal values. The progeny of the bulls was expected to be small at birth, thus reducing the possibility of calving difficulties. Inherited traits associated with vigour, such as adaptation to the environment, contribute to a higher survival and growth rate resulting in calves with a heavier 12- and 18-month weight than the average communal calf crop. This combination of good genetics and adaptive traits should result in an increased production in the communal environment.

The estimated breeding values, reproduction and characterization were established at the Agricultural Research Council’s (ARC’s) Animal Improvement Institute. Estimated breeding values of the selected bulls can be found in Appendix II.

Fertility was established by a general examination of the reproductive organs. Semen analysis was carried out on selected bulls and included values of motility, percentage live sperm and general morphology of sperm. Fertility evaluations of the selected bulls can be found in Appendix III. Semen was collected from each bull and cryopreserved for future use. This will allow for the future distribution of semen from bulls that prove to have a high performance to the herds of communities where the bulls are less productive.

Parentage of the bulls was confirmed by microsatellite DNA analysis. This analysis allows the identification of individual animals as each DNA profile is individual-specific. Ten to twelve microsatellites were used depending on the breed as specified by the International Society for Animal Genetics (ISAG).

Thirty-three bulls were bought at a cost of 164 827 rand (R) - an average price of R4 995 per bull - for distribution in communities. A feasibility study and a full needs appraisal carried out in collaboration with the German Agency for Technical Cooperation (GTZ), the ARC and the provincial departments of agriculture identified recipient communities in the Northern and Eastern Cape Provinces. These were selected using the community-based public works guidelines, which targeted communities using the following methodology:

Identify the economic development nodes and the economic development areas using the Local Council Integrated Development Plan;

Identify the locations of poverty pockets, particularly in deep rural areas, using the population census/household surveys and local knowledge;

Select the cluster areas with the poorest poverty pockets.

Criteria for selection of the farmers

Farmers were selected according to the following criteria. They had to be:

able to articulate their needs;

organized or be willing to be organized;

able to contribute a minimal amount for payment into a Trust account.

Farmers also had to:

agree to be trained as entrepreneurs;

be organized;

contribute a minimal amount towards the purchase, replacement and maintenance of bulls;

be willing to participate in the development scheme;

understand that where a bull has been fully paid for by an individual/group, that individual/group has no obligation to make it available to the entire community. Where the donor participates or pays fully for the purchase of a bull, he reserves the right to stipulate how a bull is used;

understand that a bull would be sold on the commercial market at a market-related price if it were found to be unfit or at the end of its useful life and that the proceeds would be put into the Trust Fund;

accept that the bull would be replaced every three years.

The scheme is open to new members, who can join at the local level by negotiating with those within the existing structure.

This study then used further selection criteria that included the number of households involved, the average number of cattle per household, the total number of cattle in the community and the herd composition.

Distribution of bulls

It was found that the bull/calf ratio was very low, being in the vicinity of 1:150. It was also found that businessmen were keeping bulls in their kraals for breeding purposes and that these animals were mainly exotic breeds. Cross-breeding with exotic breeds was therefore common.

Effective distribution of the bulls and monitoring of progress was seen as a prerequisite for the project’s eventual success. Capacity-building within the communities in the form of developing organizational and leadership skills was seen as a need, especially in the Northern Province. In order to achieve this, the GTZ, the ARC and extension officers facilitated the formation of commodity groups headed by a chairman who was selected by the groups themselves. These structures were already in place in the Eastern Province in the form of farmers’ associations.

In the Northern Province, Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) identified the communities of Mbahela, Tsikonelo and Khomela as suitable recipients as they were organized into livestock commodity groups. In Soetfontein, 20 farmers were encouraged to form a farmers’ association to facilitate their participation in the project. Pietersburg West, a town 30 km from Pietersburg, was identified as an additional peri-urban community. Nine bulls were evaluated and distributed in these areas before the mating season, with a further seven to follow in the near future.

In the Eastern Cape the Alan Waters community was the first to receive bulls through the project. The problem of accessing the commercial market was addressed by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded organization, Agrilink. Agrilink has facilitated the sale of slaughter stock by bringing buyers in the commercial market into contact with the communities and other small-scale farmers. Their infrastructure provides necessities such as loading ramps and sale pens and also arranges auctions in the communal areas by bringing agents and buyers together when slaughter stock is ready for sale. This arrangement overcomes one of the main problems of rural communal farmers, namely, market accessibility. Other identified communities in this area include Tendergate, the Herschele Democratic Farmers Association, the Quamata Farmers Support Centre, the Cildara Farmers Association and the Kolomama Farmers Association. To date, 14 bulls have been distributed in this area - five some time ago and nine more recently. Monitoring of the initial group has been initiated. The model of Agrilink will be applied to the Northern Province during the coming year.

In all cases communities paid R850 per bull. This allowed them to take ownership of the animals and contributed towards their maintenance. Funds of R0.5 million have been donated by the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology under the Poverty Relief Fund. This will provide approximately 35 bulls for the project. In future, the ARC has undertaken to supply ten bulls per annum from its experimental herd at Loskop Suid and additional bulls will become available from the Dohne Research Station in the Eastern Cape Province and from a further four stations in the Northern Province. However, it is estimated that these will be insufficient for the continuance of the existing project and for its expansion to other provinces in future. It will therefore be necessary to find further funding.

Development programmes

Farmers in recipient communities are expected to participate in development programmes that allow for the monitoring of progress. Concurrently with the distribution of the bulls in the Northern Province, the ARC is collaborating with the University of Venda, the farmers and staff of the Provincial Department of Agriculture to structure a programme that will serve the multiple purposes of monitoring the progress of the project, developing the capacity of the farmers, providing training for university students and providing an overextended extension service with human capacity. It is anticipated that this programme will be functional before the first progeny are born.

A full range of backup services is available to the communities in the form of a beef package. These services, provided by the ARC, include beef performance recording schemes, genetic evaluation, reproduction, genetic resources, quantitative genetics, genetic services and a Foreign Service unit. A full description of these services can be found in Appendix IV.

Exit strategy

Farmers will not be encouraged to remove or castrate existing exotic breeds in the communal farm systems. Rather they will be left in situ, where they are likely to be outperformed by the more adapted, productive Nguni bulls. Farmers are then more likely to accept the superior performance of the Nguni breed, which will have a long-term effect and address the perception problem, namely, that the Nguni is inferior to the larger, more uniform exotic counterparts.

The project is planned as a three-year project. At the end of this period in the Eastern Cape the community will return the bull, which will then be placed in another community. The returned bull will be replaced by the project. In the Northern Province the communities will contribute towards the depreciation value. At the end of the three-year period they will therefore be in a position to buy their own bulls, which will then become their own property. This empowerment of the community, together with the services provided by the beef package of the ARC, is designed to result in a long-term reversal of the reduced production currently endemic to the communal areas.


Farmers will receive the full range of production enhancement services. They will be able to identify the best management procedures for their environment, which will result in better individual animal management and farmer organization. Training and education will further improve the capacity of the farmers and allow them to make informed decisions.

Nguni bulls of superior genetic quality are in the process of being bought and will be introduced into 30 selected rural communities. This gives the farmers access to Nguni bulls that will improve the quantity (calving percentage) and the quality (growth, meat quality) of existing herds. In the short term, the structure of the programme will result in the establishment of effective and legitimate community livestock management institutions. The use of improved bulls provides the farmers with the genetic resources necessary to breed slaughter stock that meets the market demands of high meat and hide quality. The ability to sell stock at market-related prices would translate their livestock base into a capital base. Local cattle-processing and trading facilities such as abattoirs, tanneries and stock auctions will play a significant role in local economic development and will encourage job creation in the form of farm labour and staff for the trading facilities.

Constraints and obstacles

The constraints and obstacles listed below were either envisaged or have already been experienced.

Monitoring. The success of the project is dependent on careful monitoring, which is required to measure the performance of the progeny of the bulls. Extension staff at provincial level are required for this monitoring. At present the provinces as a whole are suffering from an acute lack of both human and financial capacity. Monitoring also allows for the early identification of problem areas, which, if dealt with in a timely manner, will not cause the project to falter or fail. Failure of the project in any community would have far-reaching effects, both on the morale of the community and on the credibility of the project’s organizers.

Lack of grazing management. There is little grazing management. Poor grazing results in a generally low level of nutrition, which is compounded by an excessively high stocking rate.

Herd management. Non-productive animals are not removed from the system. This is partly because of the traditional practice of maintaining cattle as a form of security and also due to a lack of banking facilities in the more remote rural areas. Inferior bulls are not castrated. These non-productive animals have the potential to dilute the effect of the introduced bulls, which are forced into competition by the excess of inferior bulls. If not corrected, this could negate the expected increase in production in the short term. In the long term the impact of the project may stimulate change. The high stocking rates have the effect of degrading the pastures and thus reducing their nutritional levels.

Lack of reproductive management. There is often no structured breeding season. This results in the birth of calves in the winter months when the nutritional status of the pasture is at its lowest. Cows failing to have one calf per year are retained. This reduces the resources available for the productive cows.

Lack of infrastructure. Most communities lack the fenced camps that make for ease of management. This problem could be alleviated by strategically placed water points, particularly as it is known that the Nguni can walk long distances in search of water.

A lack of record-keeping. Successful genetic progress depends on animal identification and the keeping of regular records. These tasks are not generally perceived as important by communal farmers who often fail to either tag their animals or to take regular measurements. The onus of monitoring the recording will fall on an already overextended extension staff. In the Northern Province it is anticipated that the collaboration with the University of Venda will provide the necessary manpower to support the extension staff.

A lack of control of parasites and disease. Dipping is no longer mandatory by law. This has resulted in a decrease of dipping frequency because dipping is expensive. Farmers either do not dip their cattle regularly or dilute the dip until it is no longer effective. Careful monitoring will be necessary to prevent these practices. In addition, veterinary services are not readily available in the more remote areas and the cost of treatments and drugs is often prohibitive. It is hoped that the service offered by the ARC beef package will alleviate this problem.

Community-based decisions. As community-based decisions are enforced so that individuals comply, it is often difficult to control management, such as grazing habits. In addition, communities are not always profit driven.

Land tenure. Although development is causing a gradual movement away from the land tenure system it remains a problem. In the tribal system land is owned by the tribal head - therefore individuals have neither the right of possession nor the right of prescription for its use. The degradation caused by poor management is not as important to the tribal head as the fact of ownership, irrespective of its condition. Individual farmers therefore have difficulty in applying more progressive farming methods.

Exotic breed influence. Rich businessmen in the communal areas buy exotic breeds such as the Brahman and can afford to supplement during the winter season. These cattle are his security as they provide him with a livelihood. The consequences of this unproductive management do not have an immediate effect on the rich farmer but they do affect the poorer farmers.

Risks and assumptions

The quality of the animals produced would lend itself to effective marketing.

Resources (land, water, genetics and general infrastructure) will be adequate to effect change.

Extension officers can be sufficiently trained in the process.

There will not be a major drought, disease outbreak or any other disaster during the duration of the project.

Communal farmers will accept drastic changes to their current way of producing animals.


This case study follows the history of an adapted cattle breed of Africa from its origins in the north of the continent to its current status in South Africa. In the middle of the last century the breed was decimated by government decree. Simultaneously, the gene pool of the breed became diluted in the communal sector through cross-breeding and replacement by exotic breeds. This resulted from the perception that the Nguni was inferior compared with the larger exotics, despite the fact that it was a low-maintenance breed ideally suited to the low-input farm systems of the communal farmer. The more recent realization that this hardy breed was uniquely adapted to the South African environment led to its evaluation and its development in the commercial sector.

The initial evaluation of the Nguni showed its potential as a beef breed in extensive and intensive farming systems. When compared with other breeds, cow mass and reproductive performance of the Nguni showed it to be the most fertile beef breed in South Africa. It was also shown to be ideally suited as a dam line in terminal cross-breeding. In addition, its traits of heat, tick and disease tolerance make it an ideal breed for extensive systems.

In the past, projects for the introduction of exotic cattle breeds into the communal sector invariably failed as a result of the introduction of complex technologies that increased production beyond the point of sustainability. This case study describes an ongoing project that is designed to encourage the reintroduction of the hardy, low-maintenance Nguni breed into the communal sector in order to stem the influence of the less well-adapted exotic breeds. This reintroduction is accompanied by support technology to improve management and a marketing system to facilitate the sale of animals at market-related prices. In addition, the communities are encouraged to organize commodity groups or farmers’ organizations to create an infrastructure allowing decisions to be made based on the common consensus of the community. The combined effects of the project should result in its long-term sustainability. However, it will be necessary to monitor its progress in order to circumvent possible constraints and obstacles.

The history of the Nguni breed in South Africa supports the concept of conservation through utilization in both the commercial and traditional farming sectors.


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