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The status, distribution and management of the domesticated Asian elephant in Cambodia[4] - Chheang Dany, Hunter Weiler, Kuy Tong and Sam Han


Funding provided by FAO for this study allowed the first ever nationwide census of domesticated elephants in Cambodia. This is highly significant, and should be regarded as a benchmark for future monitoring of the country's domesticated elephant population.

The census was conducted by the Wildlife Protection Office (WPO) of the Department of Forestry and Wildlife (DFW), Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries (MAFF). WPO officials from most provinces were contacted. Extended site visits were made to Mondulkiri, which has the largest elephant population in Cambodia. Sites in Siem Reap, which has highly visible tourist elephants at Angkor Wat, were visited only briefly, as were sites in Takeo and Kampot, which have zoo elephant populations.

Wild elephants

At present, the exact status of wild elephants in Cambodia is unclear. In 2000 and 2001, for the first time, specific elephant focused surveys began to establish locations and approximate numbers for the various populations. Because of the incomplete nature of the work and the inherent difficulties of surveying low-density populations in forest habitats (Heffernan et al., 2001), the total population size is unknown. Field surveys are ongoing, but on the basis of the information available now, the authors believe that it is possible that between 300 and 600 wild elephants remain in Cambodia. This is considerably lower than other recent estimates of 2 000 (Kemf and Jackson, 1995) and 500 to 1 000 (Osborn and Vinton, 1999).

The most important elephant range remaining in Cambodia appears to be the southwest mountain complex, consisting of the Cardamom (Kravanh) Range, the Elephant Mountains, and Phnom Aural. This region occupies portions of the provinces of Battambang, Pursat, Koh Kong, Kampong Speu, and Kampot. Large numbers of elephants appear to be using the Areng Valley, down to Botum Sakor National Park, and a cautious estimate is that these comprise up to four or five groups (Heffernan et al., 2001). Elephants are known to be present in the Phnom Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary, largely in Pursat province (Daltry and Momberg, 2000). Other small and fragmented herds are known to be present in the Phnom Aural Wildlife Sanctuary (B. Long, personal communication) and in the Kirirom and Bokor National Parks in the Elephant Mountains (J. Walston, personal communication). All populations are under constant stress from a combination of factors, including anarchic logging practices, agricultural conversions, and human resettlement. In particular, hunting pressure is relentless in many areas as a result of the continued demand for ivory and other elephant products, as witnessed in the shops of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, amongst other places (E. Bradley Martin, personal communication). Within the past year, organized hunting groups have shot numerous elephants for ivory, bone, and tails, particularly in Koh Kong and Western Pursat provinces.

A second important elephant area in Cambodia is Mondulkiri province, located east of the Mekong River and bordering the Vietnamese province of Dak Lak. Recent field surveys by World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), and by Fauna and Flora International (FFI), working with the DFW, the Department of Nature Conservation and Protection (DNCP), the provincial forestry department and local hunters, have confirmed herds of elephants in four districts. Limited survey data have been collected, but because of large-scale movements of at least one herd, population estimates are impossible at this time. Opportunistic hunting still occurs widely, as evidenced by the skeletal remains of recently hunted individuals, hunter accounts, and the trade in elephant products.

WWF, DNCP, and DFW have confirmed small, scattered populations of elephants in Western Virachey National Park in Ratanakiri province, located east of the Mekong and bordering Viet Nam and Lao PDR. The available evidence suggests that the total number of elephants is low, although in Siempang district the number is probably viable for conservation. (A. Maxwell, personal communication).

West of the Mekong and north of the Tonle Sap lies a large lowland dry evergreen forest encompassing portions of Kratie, Stung Treng, Kampong Thom, and Preah Vihear provinces. FFI and DFW have just completed field surveys in this forest. Initial estimates indicate only one group, with probably as few as three individuals, remaining in the whole forest. The entire forest is under logging concession and logging is extensive. There is a large core area that has not yet been logged and is, therefore, in exceptionally good condition. There is little sign of humans and important populations of pileated gibbons and small and medium size carnivore communities are found there. However, large mammals are no longer found because of hunting.

In the area focused on Chhep district of Preah Vihear, near the Lao PDR border, WCS, DNCP and DFW field surveys have recently confirmed a population of elephants, consisting of multiple small groups. Widespread logging is taking place in the area, and although provincial and district governors have recently forbidden any hunters to shoot elephants, these herds are under severe hunting pressure.

As would be expected from such continued hunting pressure, both focused and incidental (as a result of soldiers being based in the forest), and the availability of large tracts of forest habitat, wild elephants in Cambodia appear to be on the move almost continuously.

By the end of this field season, WWF, WCS, FFI, DFW and DNCP will have conducted initial elephant surveys in most of the significant elephant ranges. Workshops are planned for June and July 2001, to assess the present situation in the light of this year's data, and prepare an action strategy, including prioritization of key areas for conservation and protection activities. Landscape-scale elephant conservation projects are required, especially those that can find a balance between policies suiting humans and habitat focused conservation. Most elephant populations in Cambodia move in and out of designated protected areas and logging concessions to fulfil different food and habitat requirements. Elephants do not require pristine unlogged forest, and strategies incorporating the various stakeholders' interests in elephant areas are to be encouraged.

It is likely that some of the existing populations could recover to natural levels if the necessary protection measures are implemented successfully, though some herds may no longer have the diversity in their remaining gene pool to survive any of the predictable stochasticity from the environment and demographic pressures. Cambodia's human population of about 11 million is quite small, relative to the total country area, and large intact blocks of wildlife habitat remain. If trends in gun control, hunting reduction, development and enforcement of legal measures, forest area planning and management all continue, Cambodia's wild elephants have a chance of survival into the next decade, leaving sufficient numbers to recover, in theory, to natural levels, according to habitat availability at that time.

Domesticated elephants

The just completed survey of all provinces in Cambodia resulted in a total of 162 domesticated elephants. This is considerably lower than the estimate of 300 to 600 published in Gone astray in l997. Whilst this latest survey is not expected to have detected all the domesticated elephants in Cambodia, it can be regarded as the best estimate available at this time (see Table 1).

Table 1. Domesticated elephant numbers

Name of province

Estimated number of domesticated elephants





Siem Reap


Stung Treng


Kampong Speu










Kampong Thom


Koh Kong


Phnom Penh


Total number


Mondulkiri (91): In Mondulkiri, records of domesticated elephant numbers have been kept since at least 1995 (Lic Vuthy et al., 1995). In 1995, 104 elephants were reported and is considered to be a reliable minimum (Lair, 1997). In 1999, the number of domesticated elephants recorded by the provincial forestry department was 93, in 2000 it was 83 and in July 2001 it was 91. In order to cross check the data, two districts (Pichreada and Orieng) were checked by two of the authors, who recorded the same number (91) of elephants as on the records.

Ratanakkiri (39): Because of the long distance to this province from Phnom Penh, a member of the survey team spoke to three provincial officers by telephone (one from each of the Department of Forestry and Wildlife, the Department of Animal Health and the Department of Nature Conservation and Protection). They each confirmed the figure of 39 domesticated elephants in the province (according to the most recent record kept by the provincial DFW in June 2001).

Siem Reap (11): A field visit to Siem Reap (where all 11 elephants were observed) and discussions with the Deputy Director of the provincial office of the DFW indicated that these are the only domesticated elephants in the province.

Stung Treng (5): A telephone call was placed to the Deputy Director of the provincial office of the DFW who gave this figure.

Kampong Speu (4): Field staff visited this province, and an official from the provincial office of the DFW was interviewed. The official stated that five domesticated elephants had died between 1995 and 1996 as a result of old age.

Kampot (3): Field staff visited this province and, in the company of officials from the provincial office of the DFW, three elephants were observed. These officials believe that no other elephants are present.

Kandal (3): Field staff visited this province and, in the company of officials from the provincial office of the DFW, three elephants were observed. These officials believe that no other elephants are present.

Takeo (2): Field staff visited this province and, in the company of officials from the provincial office of the DFW, two elephants were observed. These officials believe that no other elephants are present.

Kratie (1): A telephone call was placed to the Deputy Director of the provincial office of the DFW who gave this figure.

Kampong Thom (1): A telephone call was placed to the Deputy Director of the provincial office of the DFW who gave this figure.

Koh Kong (1): A telephone call was placed to the Deputy Director of the provincial office of the DFW who gave this figure.

Phnom Penh (1): This elephant is employed in the tourism industry and is well known.

Discussion of the status of domesticated elephants

Suspicion of the authorities by local people and their strong tendency to avoid the intrusion of officials make full reporting unlikely and suggest that these figures must be considered as reliable minimums only. However, declarations of ownership may be difficult to avoid, especially as development and transport links improve and the communities become less isolated. Moreover, registration carries no further responsibilities as there is no legal framework and may be regarded simply as a formality. Further research, therefore, should examine this issue of the reliability of reporting more closely.

Because of the time constraints of the investigators involved, independent confirmation of numbers given by provincial officials was not always possible. Moreover, it is possible that births or deaths may have occurred fairly recently, and these would not have been recorded at the time of investigation.

Because of the inherent problems in collecting information on domesticated elephants, it is unlikely that the previous estimates (Lair, 1997; Kemf and Jackson, 1995; McNeely, 1975) are sufficiently rigorous to form the basis of any assessment of trends in numbers. However, it is certain that there has been a reduction in the numbers of domesticated elephants as a result of decreased opportunities for industrial work, e.g. logging and heavy lifting, which have been mechanized almost everywhere.

This survey should be regarded as a baseline survey, despite the limitations noted above, as it gives a detailed provincial breakdown.

In l999, Mondulkiri provincial DFW officials recorded 93 elephants, but by 2000 the number had declined to 83 elephants. These ten elephants ‘lost' between 1999 and 2000 were in fact sent to Siem Reap. According to the last double check conducted by Mondulkiri DFW in June to July 2001, 91 domesticated elephants were recorded. Others were possibly sold to Thailand and Viet Nam between l999 and 2000. During this period, six calf elephants were captured, ranging in age from 6 months to five years old, according to provincial DFW sources. One particular young elephant that avoided the hunters was brought to the WPO Wildlife Rescue Center in Phnom Penh. During a hunt, the mother of this individual was killed, and the young animal ran into a village. It was caught in a villager's kitchen searching for food. The villagers negotiated with the DFW as they did not wish to raise the elephant. In the end, an undisclosed sum of money was paid to bring the young animal to the Wildlife Rescue Center. This young animal unfortunately died on 5 April 2001 because of an infection following an accident that resulted in a number of broken bones.

Elephants normally belong to clans of the Phnong minority. Each clan is composed of 10 to 35 families, and each family in that clan has the right to use any elephant. Furthermore, ownership is passed on from generation to generation, so sometimes an elephant belongs to three or four generations of a clan at the same time. Therefore, the chances of double counting (at least!) are quite high in any simple interview census. The numbers cited in this report are expected to be accurate because they were crosschecked by provincial and DFW staff, who have been recording the animals in this area for quite some time. In two districts cross-checked by surveyors, the number recorded was consistent with the number counted.

Elephants are rarely bred in captivity, often because of local taboos or financial concerns. Moreover, expeditions to capture wild elephant are conducted less often than in previous years because of a decreased demand for elephants and the availability of alternative incomes for local people. For example, in Koh Nhek district of Mondulkiri, according to one local commune chief, many former elephant hunters are now engaged in wet rice production, and have little time to organize large-scale expeditions. Furthermore, uncontrolled hunting and warfare have decimated the population of wild elephants, making it more difficult to locate and catch young individuals. This situation is exacerbated by the problem of killing wild females to obtain calves, the net result being that the young, the breeding females and the future breeding of the captured animal are all removed from the total wild elephant population.

Although the country's forest area is still extensive, the people's houses, especially in old communes, are being located farther from the forest edge. Owners cannot allow the elephants to forage a long distance from the house for fear of hunters after ivory,"medicinal parts” or meat. Because of the increasing numbers of people living in areas traditionally inhabited by elephants, destruction of crops while foraging is becoming more common, leaving the owners with another headache if they leave their elephants to roam free. People are therefore obliged either to mind their elephants all day, or to go to the forest to collect food for their prized pet. This, coupled with rural poverty in many areas, makes the prospect of elephant ownership less inviting.

Widespread availability of motorbikes and military trucks has also resulted in a greatly reduced demand for elephants for transport and labour (log haulage was formerly a primary use of domesticated elephants).

Many of the domesticated elephants today are extremely old. For example, only one elephant in the whole of the Siem Reap group is below 45 years old. All the elephants are believed to be wild caught, and some, according to one informant, have been trafficked through Mondulkiri. During the Pol Pot regime, some domesticated elephants reverted to a wild state. Very few wild elephants were captured during the period 1980 to 2000, according to local people in Mondulkiri. Only a few old men still know the traditional techniques of how to catch and train elephants. Their skills are not being passed on to the next generation, which seems to prefer mopeds to elephants. This is an indication that the cultural heritage is dwindling, along with the symbiotic expanses of forest.

In Phnong culture, it is believed that if a domesticated elephant gets pregnant or even has sexual relations, unhappiness will result for the entire village. Many villagers still maintain this belief. Therefore, the owner of a pregnant elephant often must pay compensation to all villagers, such as a hosted feast where at least three buffalo and three pigs are sacrificed and a large quantity of rice wine is consumed. A village committee, in accordance with commune regulations, generally determines the required scale of these sacrifices. The resulting time and cost of these parties is a lot of trouble for an elephant owner, and discourage any thought of breeding domesticated elephants.

Legal status

Currently, there is a general lack of laws governing animal issues in Cambodia and there are no specific laws governing domesticated elephants. A draft wildlife law has recently been prepared by DFW, with technical assistance from WCS and WWF and financial support from the British Embassy in Cambodia. This draft will be presented to interested organizations for review at a workshop later in 2001. The law will deal in detail with both the capture and killing of wild animals.

In the meantime, there are a variety of wildlife-related decrees, sub-decrees, declarations, etc. in place that are confusing and contradictory. These are poorly known and generally misunderstood, particularly in rural areas, where most human-wildlife contact takes place. Order No. 2, requesting the restriction of illegal logging, issued by the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) on 6 January 1999, and Declaration No. 1,"Actions of Forest Management and Law Enforcement”, issued on 25 January by RGC, explicitly banned all capture and killing of wildlife in Cambodia. Thus, a lack of laws is not the whole problem. The problem is the rural people's lack of comprehension of the policies. Lack of enforcement by the authorities is also a major obstacle to the successful protection of wildlife in general, including elephants.

Very little enforcement of wildlife laws takes place. Two actions involving elephants that have taken place in recent years illustrate this. In one case, four domesticated elephants being transported between provinces for sale were intercepted and confiscated by the DFW, but the Kratie Provincial court ordered the government to return the elephants after the owners sued. In July l999, a farmer in Kampong Speu fired into a herd of elephants that had been grazing on his crops for several nights. He killed a female and captured the calf, which he sold for US$460. The farmer was arrested and released after he paid half his profit in fines. The calf was subsequently sold to a government official with a private zoo for US$1 800. A third case, however, illustrates that the situation may be changing for the better. DFW was negotiating with a group in Srey Huei Commune in Koh Nhek district of Mondulkiri province to arrange transfer of a captured calf to the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center, near Phnom Penh. However, due to fears of being fined and legal action being taken, the animal was released back into the forest. The people of the commune then told officials that the animal had escaped. This indicates that people are beginning to understand that the law will not allow them to continue to capture these animals from the wild. Moreover, if they are forced to relinquish ownership of captured animals repeatedly, they will quickly learn that the effort and time required to mount a hunting operation is simply wasted.

On 30 April l999, the Royal Government of Cambodia issued Sub-decree No. 38, Management and Control of All Types of Firearms and Explosives. This prohibited civilian possession of firearms and all civilians were ordered to turn in their guns. This has been so effective that in most provinces officials and hunters report that there are far fewer people in the forest with guns these days. However, in the Cardamom Range, elephants are still being killed at an alarming rate by the placement of landmines on elephant trails.


There is no nationwide registration of domesticated elephants, although in Siem Reap there is province-level registration of the tourist elephants at Angkor Wat, and in Mondulkiri the provincial office of the MAFF takes on this task. Responsibility for a registration system lies with DFW. The concept for this is currently being designed and will be implemented by the DFW/FFI Elephant Programme. The basis of this will involve collecting locality and ownership data, a physical description, a photograph, and implantation of a small microchip by experienced veterinarians. This information will be stored in a central database. Owners throughout the country will be notified of the requirement to register their elephants, and they will be allowed a reasonable time to contact the authorities. Failure to comply with this requirement will initially lead to a small fine, followed by the confiscation of illegally captured animals.

Organisations and their major projects

There are no major projects dealing specifically with domesticated elephants in Cambodia, although the DFW/FFI programme is preparing to take responsibility for some aspects of this work, thus ensuring government involvement. Moreover, as noted previously, WCS and WWF are assisting the DFW to prepare a new wildlife law, which will include details of domesticated elephant protocol.

Under the Asian Elephant Conservation Fund, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service has funded two projects in Cambodia: one involving WWF, WCS, DNCP, and DFW, and one involving FFI, DFW, and the Asian Elephant Research and Conservation Centre (AERCC) in India. The combined efforts of both projects will result in field data from all of the major elephant ranges and a far better understanding of the present status and distribution of the Asian elephant in Cambodia.

WildAide is working with the Forest Crime Monitoring Unit of the DFW nationwide in efforts to control illegal hunting and the wildlife trade.

Cat Action Treasury (CAT) and the University of Minnesota are working with the DFW to develop the Community-based Tiger Conservation Project. Regional offices have been established in Koh Kong, Preah Vihear, and Mondulkiri. Over 30 ex-hunters have been recruited as wildlife rangers. Recently, a Koh Kong wildlife ranger discovered six dead elephants. He photographed these and then recorded their GPS locations and passed on the information to the authorities. The investigation which followed resulted in the break-up of an elephant hunting gang.

Employment of domesticated elephants

Eight elephants in Siem Reap are used to transport tourists at Angkor Wat, two are in training, and one calf is being raised.

In Kampot, two elephants are in a private zoo. One originated in Koh Kong, and another in Mondulkiri. A medicine seller uses a third elephant for transportation. This elephant, age 38, is reported to have originated in Kampot.

In Takeo, a number of calves are being looked after in the Phnom Tamao Zoo and Wildlife Rescue Center to promote conservation education and to protect the calves from exploitation. One of these elephants (age 3) was confiscated in Koh Kong. Another animal (aged 2) was collected from ethnic minorities in Mondulkiri, but recently died, following an accident.

One elephant is engaged in tourist activities in the heart of Phnom Penh, at Wat Phnom. The elephant is used to give rides. Three elephants are also based in a private zoo, owned by a Frenchman, on an island in the Mekong River, close to Phnom Penh.

In Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri, Cambodia's largest population of domesticated elephants is still used for transport and occasionally for log transport. Most owners are from minority ethnic groups. Mondulkiri elephants have been used on several wildlife surveys, and two Ratanakiri elephants were employed during the production of a documentary film in l999 called"Search for the Kouprey”. Elephants are most used during the rice harvest in Northern Mondulkiri and the cost of hiring them is increased accordingly at this time. Occasionally, elephants are used for an unusual task, but not always with success - the final outcome of Mondulkiri province voting in the l998 election was delayed by a day when a lovesick elephant transporting ballot boxes ran off into the forest after a wild elephant. After the ballot boxes were recovered, a helicopter was called in to prevent further delays.

Veterinary care

The Siem Reap elephants used for tourist transport at Angkor Wat are well cared for and appear quite healthy. A local veterinarian performs a medical and health check once a week. An international veterinarian from Thailand specializing in domesticated elephants sees the elephants one a month and is also available for emergency cases. Within the last year, one elephant has died of illness and one has died of old age. The adult elephants receive about 200 kg of food a day, consisting of sugar cane, coconut leaf, green leaves, and grass. The two years old baby elephant is fed milk. Arrangements are being made for the transfer of eight more elephants from Mondulkiri to Angkor Wat to assist in the tourist trade. This transfer has been approved by WPO, with the provisions that regular checks will be allowed on the welfare of the animals, and the new owner will facilitate breeding of the domesticated animals to establish a non-wild caught pool of animals within the famous temple complex.

The juvenile elephants at Phnom Tamao Zoo and Wildlife Rescue Center are the only other domesticated elephants in Cambodia confirmed to have an adequate diet and medical care. They are fed milk, boiled rice with beans, palm sugar, and sugar cane and are under strict veterinary supervision.

Anecdotal evidence indicates that many elephants kept in remote villages are poorly treated and not properly fed, although the availability of wild feed, especially for those animals that work in or near to the forests, probably improves their diet.

Summary and recommendations

Once an important part of Khmer life, the domesticated elephant population is now quite small and will almost certainly continue to decline, mainly because of improved roads, a preference for motorized vehicles, bans on wild elephant capture, a limited wild elephant base, and an ageing domesticated elephant population. With no younger animals coming in and the loss of knowledge of how to capture and train elephants, the cultural heritage associated with this way of life is also in decline. It may be that the domesticated elephant will disappear from Cambodian culture, except in memory and art. Supplementation of the domesticated population is not acceptable because of the great threat of extinction hanging over the wild population. The transfer of elephants from Thailand could fill the requirements of a booming tourist market, but wild capture for domestication is now completely unacceptable anywhere in Indochina.

1. The working group recommends that DFW establish a programme for the registration of all remaining domesticated elephants in Cambodia. Regulations should be developed to ensure the humane care, feeding, and employment of these elephants. Elephant owners should be educated on the regulations, and a system and schedule of compliance inspection, reporting, and enforcement should be established. This must go hand in hand with attempts to stop the hunting, capture and the domestication of wild individuals.

2. If it is shown that any ethnic or rural populations are in need of a working elephants, and to maintain a tourist transport base at Angkor Wat and other tourist centres, a study should be carried out to determine the feasibility of breeding domesticated elephants.

3. A study should be carried out to determine the feasibility of rehabilitating domesticated elephants to a wild state. This has been shown to be possible in previous studies (R. Lair, personal communication), and should be encouraged in any cases where owners cannot keep their animals in a humane condition.

4. Reasonably priced veterinary support should be made available to all remaining domesticated elephants in Cambodia.

5. Clear dietary guidelines should be developed and distributed to all owners of domesticated elephants, along with details of the forthcoming registration programme.

6. Cooperation with Thailand, Lao PDR, and Viet Nam should be developed to ensure that the issue of domesticated elephants and dwindling wild populations are considered a regional, not just a national, issue. Interestingly, the results from a preliminary analysis of mitochondria DNA demonstrated that elephants from Thailand and Cambodia share a number of heliotypes. This is consistent with there being little genetic differentiation between elephant populations from these two countries (P. Fernando, personal communication).

7. The new draft of the Cambodian wildlife law should contain one article that deals with the issues relating to the overall welfare, capture, procurement, ownership, transfer, sale and movement of domesticated elephants in and out of the country, and should address the needs of animals that have been converted from the wild to pet status.

8. Supplementing dwindling domesticated elephant"herds” with individuals from areas with a surplus, such as Northern Thailand, should be examined.


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The authors would like to thank a number of people for facilitating the survey and reviewing earlier drafts of this manuscript. This work would not have been possible without the support of the Department of Forestry and Wildlife in Phnom Penh, specifically Ty Sokhun, Ung Sam At and Men Phymean. Thanks also to all of the provincial officials who gave their time to assist in collecting the relevant information.

This project was funded by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. We gratefully acknowledge the active support and encouragement of M. Kashio, Jean Claude Levasseur of FAO, and the assistance of Frank Momberg, FFI.

Joe Heffernant - FFI's Elephant Biologist - made a major contribution to this report.

We would like to thank Joe Walston for reviewing the manuscript and giving extensive feedback. Also appreciated is the information given (often before its publication) by Andy Maxwell, Pruthu Fernando, Barney Long, Esmond Martin, and Richard Lair.

Question and answer session

Q1: Did you say in your presentation that you have completed a countrywide survey of domesticated elephants?

A1: No, it is ongoing.

Q2: Is there much elephant trading in Cambodia?

A2: It has probably reduced in recent years but there is still some poaching to sell the ivory and for the traditional medicine trade. Thai and Chinese are involved in the trade.

[4] This is a revised version of the paper that was presented at the International Workshop. It contains information that was not available at that time.

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