Galapagos News

Meeting with UK Galapagos Conservation Trust CEO

CNH Tours has been on the road recently, passing through London earlier this month.  We took advantage of our visit to invite Ian Dunn, CEO of the Galapagos Conservation Trust (GCT), for lunch at a Spanish tapas restaurant on Great Portland Street.  It was a sunny day, and Ian joined us with his colleague, Leah Jones for a light meal and a great conversation.

The GCT has been around for many years, certainly well before we first arrived in Galapagos, back in 1998.   It helps raise funds for conservation work in the islands, focusing on science, education and culture.    The GCT is quite a dynamic organization, also organizing events in the UK and fund-raising cruises in the islands.  

Our lunch meeting was very interesting - and we are following-up with some mutual cooperation on improvements to information sharing with each other, and with CNH Tours guests.  

GCT runs a monthly newsletter - no better way than to keep informed about what's going on in the islands.  For more information, see:  http://galapagosconservation.org.uk/get-involved/newsletter/ 

Petition against hotel development in park lands

Galapagos residents have been growing increasingly alarmed by plans for luxury hotels and golf courses in the islands - expressing concern over the transformation of Galapagos into another Hawaii.   CNH Tours notes that 50% of all Hawaiian bird species became extinct since the first arrival of humans about 1,500 years ago, and agrees that the same fate awaits Galapagos species unless strict measures are applied.

Click here to see the petition requesting that the site be placed on the UNESCO World Heritage in Danger list - this would raise the profile of the issue with national and international governments.

 

 

Social rumblings in the islands

Over the past 2 years, the government of Ecuador has been reviewing the Special Law for Galapagos (SLG) - a law originally passed in 1998, which gives the islands and its residents special status, and providing a legal framework that overrides the national constitution, in an effort to better control development there.   It has been considered a major achievement even at the international level.

The revised law, passed earlier this week, loosens some of these controls, making large investments in high end hotels easier, as well as making easier the changing of the boundaries of the National Park.    Moreover, the "remote" status of the islands, which translated into a type of salary bonus for public employees there, is being revised in such a way as to reduce the isolation bonus they have been enjoying for nearly 20 years now.  

As a result of these and other changes, people in Galapagos have been demonstrating against the Quito government in recent days.  Sure, a good number are simply concerned over the risk to their pay scales - but others are concerned about the erosion of environmental protection guarantees.  

The government, in response, has sent in more police to the islands, protecting gas stations and the like.   There have been some public demonstrations and some stand-offs with police forces - but no violence has been reported.  

CNH Tours is of course very concerned that increased development in the islands (largely driven by land based tourism - as ship based tourism has been remarkably capped for 15-20 years) will contribute to the erosion of the values for which they are internationally recognized.  

For those of you visiting the islands in the coming days (perhaps weeks), if you are taking "just the cruise" with no land component, you will likely not even notice any of this.   For those of you planning on spending time in town (particularly in San Cristobal), you may get to witness interesting moments.   While you may want to stay out of the thick of things, these are interesting moments when society seeks to get a message across to a government based in a far away capital. 

 

History is made - shark fishermen found guilty!

This may sound banal to some, but in Galapagos, it is a landmark legal decision announced by the Galapagos National Park Service yesterday.   For the first in history, despite the existence of a legal framework allowing it, the captain and the crew of the fishing vessel Fer Mary I were found criminally guilty of conducting illegal fishing of protected species inside the Galapagos Marine Reserve – a World Heritage site. 

It took 4 years of intense criminal proceedings by the Galapagos National Park, the Ministry of Environment to reach this judgment.   The 10 hour trial resulted in convictions against the defendants, creating very important judicial precedents under criminal law. 

The fishing boat Fer Mary I was captured on July 19, 2011, while conducting fishing operations 20 miles inside the Galapagos Marine Reserve.  When captured, their holds contained more than 357 sharks, more specifically: 286 thresher sharks, 22 blue sharks,  40 Galapagos sharks, 6 hammerhead sharks, 2 tiger sharks and 1 mako shark.

CNH Tours is extremely pleased at this outcome.  For too long, the judicial system would dismiss such cases, mostly out of a lack of importance attached to environmental crimes.    This really does mark a change in the way Ecuador handles such crimes, and we expect illegal fisherman will take note.    It is a good day for shark in Galapagos waters.

Sharks are illegally fished all over the world to feed the large shark Asian (mostly Chinese) shark fin market.  Shark fins are used to make “shark fin soup”.   What a tragedy that these magnificent animals are being annihilated so that we may have some soup. 

 

Fer Mary

My husband joins the CNH Tours team!

I’m very pleased to announce that as of today, my dear husband, Marc Patry, will be joining me at CNH Tours.   After over 12 years working with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and seeing how I’m getting too busy to cope with all the work,  he decided to make the switch.  

 

Marc was actually the one who started CNH Tours, having organized trips to the Yucatan, Patagonia and to the Monarch Butterfly reserves of Mexico while working for an international community forestry NGO.   When we moved to the Galapagos, he decided to strike out on his own, and as a side activity, he organized a first cruise there for friends, and another for those who had joined him on earlier trips.  His main job was with the Charles Darwin Research Station, where he helped develop and start up the largest ever conservation project in the islands - the eradication of goats from Isabela Island. He worked closely with the Galapagos National Park Service as well.   Marc was also involved in managing several other conservation projects, and helped with the management of the Research Station.

 

We left Galapagos for Paris (UNESCO headquarters) where Marc was given the responsibility for natural World Heritage sites in Latin America and the Caribbean - which included the Galapagos Islands.  At that point, he had to hand over CNH Tours to me.  For over 10 years, Marc closely monitored the conservation status of the islands, and engaged with senior government officials, conservation organizations, the tourism industry, local politicians and other stakeholders in so doing. He has had several meetings with various ministers of the environment, and he once even had a private meeting with the president of Ecuador to discuss World Heritage issues.

 

Marc’s position allowed him to travel to Galapagos on several occasions and to be taken around the islands as the United Nations representative for monitoring the islands’ state of conservation.  He was also responsible for reporting in person to the intergovernmental World Heritage Committee on what he saw.

This has given Marc a unique perspective and access to a wide variety of sources regarding the on-going efforts at addressing conservation challenges.  He has frequently been asked to speak to the media, from The Economist, to Al Jazeera, on matters relating to Galapagos. 

Update:  As of 2019, Marc sits on the following boards of directors:

  • The International Galapagos Tour Operators' Association
  • The Travel Industry Council of Ontario
  • The Charles Darwin Foundation (as a governing member of the General Assembly)


With Marc at my side, I’ll be able to breathe a bit easier, and we hope to provide even better service than we have so far. 

Spectacular eruption on Wolf Volcano

We've just received news of a volcanic eruption at Wolf Volcano, the northernmost volcano on Isabela Island (the largest island).

Wolf is also the highest peak in the Galapagos archipelago, at 1,707 meters (5,600 feet).   A rare pink land iguana lives there - surely they will be affected, as will the Wolf Volcano tortoises.  But that's part of the equation in Galapagos - these islands were born of fire and continue to grow by fire. 

Isabela Island and its neighbour to the west, Fernandina island, remain volcanically active, and such eruptions happen every 5-6 years.  They generally are quite impressive for the first few days, then taper off quickly, and ending 7-10 days later.   For those happening to be on a ship nearby, it is a spectacle you'll remember for the rest of your life. 

The picture below (by naturalist guide Diego Paredes) was just posted on Facebook - it could be just a few hours old - the time remains to be confirmed. 

Wolf Volcano Eruption

Charles Darwin Foundation Fires Executive Director - no reason given yet

Swen Lorenz, former London financier, and dynamic, "out of the box" thinking executive director of the Charles Darwin (CDF) Foundation since 2011 was fired last Friday by the board of directors, as reported in his Facebook page today.   At the writing of this news item, the CDF website is mum about the issue.

In his open letter to the Board, responding to the firing, Swen calls it a "haphazard and abrupt decision" that "was not coordinated with the CDF's strategic donors, is placing significant stress on staff and threatens current funding plans".    He states that "back in 2011, I was brought on board to radically change the model of CDF, as it was evidently broken. In 2015, I get fired because I was doing just that."   

Swen reports that the CDF remains in a very delicate financial situation, and may experience liquidity problems as early as next month.  He indicated that the innovative financing mechanisms he was in the midst of launching were the best way to keep the organization afloat in the coming months. 

He goes on to "place all responsibility for the financial and political survival of the CDF with its board", adding that "the timing and execution of their decisions lacks planning and puts the entire organization at risk". 

CNH Tours is extremely concerned over these developments - the CDF, with the Galapagos National Park Service, have been the foundations over which conservation in Galapagos was built since the 1960s.   Losing the CDF would  seriously undermine the scientitic backstopping against which the National Park service depends for developing and executing effective conservation programmes.

The 22nd of May letter of the CDF board of directors to its members, announcing its decision, was shared with CNH Tours today.  They simply state that Swen's firing was "part of our effort to develop a stable future for the CDF".    They also announce that a new CDF executive director had been appointed - and is none other than Arturo Izurieta.   Arturo himself was recently fired as the director of hte Galapagos National Park (see CNH Tours news items in April).    Arturo, whom we know, enjoys a good reputation as a solid professional, and is trained as a scientist, having worked in conservation for many years - though it appears the biggest challenge facing the CDF now is not management or research, but fund-raising.    It will also be interesting to see how the relations between the Park and the CDF will fare, given Arturo's own abrupt firing from that same institution.  We certainly wish him success.

It seems that the bold experiment consisting of the hiring of an experienced and demonstrated financial expert / entrepreneur as the CDF executive director, the first time a non-scientist held the job since the CDF's creatin nearly 60 years ago, has come to an end.  Swen was able to raise robust short term financing in the past year - but it appears his proposals for the future may have been too bold and too innovative for the comfort of the board. 

We are eager to hear more details.

 

 

El Niño signals.....?

I generally refrain from reporting on the latest American NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) reports on El Niño predictions, as these tend to be misconstrued when applied to Galapagos. But..... between what NOAA is saying now ("far above average water temperatures for June, July, August in the Eastern tropical Pacific"), and what I'm hearing from my friends in the islands ("we could feel it!"), and a scientist friend currently doing research in the Cocos Islands - about 1000km NE of Galapagos, in reaction to a rare spawning aggregation of pelagic crabs, seen during the 1997-98 El Niño - see picture below ("A signal of a strong El Niño developing? Water here in Cocos is crazy hot - diving without wetsuits to below 100 ft.... ") for the first time since 1997-98, I would say that it looks like an El Niño of some intensity is manifesting itself about now. May is the month that water temperatures go down, while during an El Niño, they don't. Let's see what happens in the coming months.

A strong El Niño spells great times for terrestrial ecosystems (more and prolonged rains, warm temperatures) but very harsh conditions for marine ecosystems (very warm waters drive away fish, the food source that keeps all marine animals going, from sea birds, penguins, to sea lions etc...).   Visiting Galapagos during an El Niño provides a rare opportunity to witness ecosystems reacting to drastic changes in the usual conditions.   El Niño events over the millenia have certainly driven evolutionary processes there. 

 

Below: latest NOAA predictions.  Galapagos lies on the Equator, just off the South American coast, where the greatest deviation from normal temperatures are expected.  Cocos Island lies to the North East.Nino

 

Marine biologist Alex Hearn marvels at the rare spawning aggregation of this off shore (pelagic) crab in the abnormally hot waters around Cocos Island (Costa Rica) a few days ago and wonders if this is an indication of an El Niño to come. Picture by Ian Kellett.

 

Crabs

 

 

 

We booked 0.4% of all cruise ship visitors in 2014!

The Galapagos National Park figures confirm our unofficial motto:   "We may not be big, but we're small!".  

Yesterday, the  Park published the 2014 tourism numbers.

According to the analysis, a total of 215,691 visitors came to Galapagos during 2014, up 6% compared to 2013. Of these, 70% (149,997) were from abroad. 

By nationality, the proportions are:

  • Ecuadorians 30%
  • American 26%
  • British 6%
  • Germany, Canada and Australia, 4% each
  • Argentina, 3%;
  • All other nationalities (153 in total!): 23%

The park indicated that 35% embark on a cruise with an average 7 day length while 65% did a land based visit, staying an average of 5 days.  The data is obtained from the Transit Control Card, which must be filled out by all visitors to the island. 

Based on these numbers, CNH Tours can proudly boast that we sent 0.4% of all cruise ship visitors to Galapagos!

Not too long ago, the vast majority of visitors to Galapagos embarked on a cruise.  But over the past 15 years, the rising prices of cruises and the growing popularity of Galapagos has led to a boom in land based visitors on island hopping tours.  There has also been a bit of a boom in visitors from mainland Ecuador over to the island for a quick peak, staying for just 2 or 3 nights.  

We are very pleased that the government of Ecuador has resisted opening up the number and sizes of cruise ships, despite the pressure to do so.  Ten years ago, an experiment was permitted, in which a 500 passenger ship was allowed to transit through the islands and visit.  It was an unmitigated disaster.   As a result, the ship based visitor experience is still very good.  

 

Friend and former colleague appointed governor

Eliecer Cruz, former Galapagos National Park director and former head of World Wildlife Fund operations in Galapagos has just been appointed by the president of Ecuador as governor of the province of Galapagos and president of its governing council.

CNH Tours had the chance to get to know Eliecer when we lived in the Galapagos - he was working at the park director in those days.  We knew him as an intelligent, solid and very personable man.   We kept in touch over the years, and are pleased to see that the president of Ecuador has recognized his skills, personal attributes and credibility in the Galapagos community. 

Eliecer is one of, perhaps up to 12 brothers and sisters born at home in the tiny, isolated community on Florana island.  His siblings include Marylin Cruz, a Galapagos veterinary doctor, Felipe, a Galapagos visionary and conservationist, Lenin, a ship captain, Augusto, owner of the Beagle cruise ship, and another, whose name escapes me, who remained in Floreana tend the family farm.

CNH Tours congratulates Eliecer and wishes all the best to him and to his family.

Eliecer Cruz

Eliecer Cruz2

Small cruise ship runs aground

The 16 passenger Tip Top II ran aground in the early morning of Friday, April 24th.  All 16 passengers and crew were safefly evacuated.  A passenger on the ship reported to CNH Tours that one person suffered a broken arm and another a dislocated shoulder.  It ran aground as it was approaching Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, just near Tortuga Bay beach.  The authorities are now hoping to extract the ship from the shallows to avoid any fuel spills. 

Cruise ships in the Galapagos are required to meet strict standards in terms of on-board technology (GPS, depth monitors etc...) rendering any such accident less likely one of navigational error, and more one of human error - though we have not heard anything on the cause of the accident.

I strongly recommend anyone who is booked to go on the Tip Top II in the next 12 months to contact your travel agent to ensure your interests are taken into consideration, as the Tip Top II's owners seek to re-assign booked clients on other ships.

This is the first cruise ship loss in several years.  Generally, the record has been very good in Galapagos - considering that there are at least 60 ships plying its waters just about 365 days a year, day and night,navigating around an archipelago of over 100 islands and islets.   

The Tip Top II is owned and operated by Rolf Wittmer Tours.  The late Rolf Wittmer  (deceased 2011) was the first person to be born on Floreana Island (1 January 1933), in cave that together with a tent served as the family’s first dwelling.   His parents had emigriated from Germany just 4 months earlier - what pioneers!  I had the pleasure of working with Rolf's children while in Galapagos.  Rolf Wittmer Tours also runs the Tip Top III and IV. 

 

Tip Top II On The Rocks

Galapagos celebrates Earth Day

To commemorate Earth Day in Galapagos, the National Park Service distributed seedlings of native plants to households in the inhabited islands.   In so doing, the Park is continuing in its efforts to sensitize the local population on the threat that non-native, invasive species (plants, insects, animals...) present to the islands' unique biodiversity.

The islands arose out of the ocean starting 6-7 million years ago, and were devoid of life.  Only life forms that succeeded in making the 1,000 km journey from the mainland, over millions of years, and survive, were on the islands when the first recorded visit, in 1535, was made.   Since then, humans have been bringing over species from all over the world, on purpose (dogs, goats, pigs, agricultural plants), or by accident (parasitic flies, rats...).  

These introduced, or "alien" species are recognized as the single biggest threat to Galapagos native plants and animals, as many of them outcompete the locals for food, nesting sites, or cause diseases in them (such as canine distemper - brought to the islands via infected dogs).  

The biggest challenge to the authorities is to control the arrival, establishment and spread of alien species.  As a visitor, you will be screened on your way to the islands and upon arrival.  All cargo sent to the islands is also screened.  But no system is perfect - and Galapagos conservationists have to be constantly vigilant in spotting new introductions so that they may be removed before they spread.

When we lived in Galapagos, my husband was setting up the largest ever such alien species eradication project ever attempted on earth - targeting goats on Isabela island, the largest of the Galapagos islands.  It was ultimately successful - with over 150,000 goats "removed".  

Planing A Seedling

Special Law for Galapagos - 2nd reading tomorrow

The president of Ecuador’s National Assembly convened the Plenary Session No. 323 for Thursday April 23, at 09:30, in order carry out the second reading the draft revised Special Law on Galápagos. 

The first special law was passed in March 1998, and set out far-reaching changes in how the islands had been managed until then.  It officially recognized that Galapagos is a unique place for which conservation and sustainable development must be a priority.  Most dramatically, the 1998 Special Law restricted the movement of people, even Ecuadorians, between the mainland and the islands – establishing a status of “resident” and “non-resident” Galapagueños.  This was in response to the rapid immigration of people from the continent to the islands, overwhelming their environmental carrying capacity (imagine the USA preventing mainlanders from moving to Hawaii!). 

A quick skim of the draft text reveals some points worth noting

  • There is no mention of the "Galapagos National Park Service", but rather, the term "decentralized adminitrative unit in charge of protected areas".  This may or may not be significant - we wonder why "Galapagos National Park Service" is not referred to. 
  • Maritime traffic monitoring will be carried out by the ministry of defence - the Park Service has a control room where it track via satellite, the movement of fishing vessels around the marine reserve - it can easily see when such vessels enter the reserve (they are not allowed to do so).  We are not sure if this represents a significant change - but it appears as though the park will need to depend on another agency for information on possible infractions.  This may make it harder for it to be responsive to illegal fishing in the reserve.
  • Whereas the current law fixes the park entrance fee (for non-Ecuadorians) at $100 (since 1998), the new proposed law does not stipulate a fee, but gives the responsibility for doing so to the governing councile (comprised of representative from different government and Galapagos stakeholders).   It proposes that "at least 50%" ofthe park entrance fee should be assigned to the "National environmental authorit through its decentralized administrative unit in charge of protected areas" (the Park Service, we assume).   This is appears to be a modest increase from the current law, which assigns 45% to the park and marine reserve. 
  • The law recommends that a new park fee will likely vary according to the following criteria:
    • How long you expect to stay (there has been talk of a higher cost for very short (e.g. 3 days) visits
    • What kind of tourism (ship, land)
    • Age range and physical disability
    • Ecuadorian vs non-Ecuadorian

CNH Tours will keep track of this draft law and report on any pertinent developments.

 

 

Sierra Negra volcano showing signs of activity

The Institute of Geophysics (IG) of Ecuador confirmed yesterday the increased activity, increased flow fumaroles and sulfur odor in the Sierra Negra volcano, located on Isabela Island in the Galapagos.  The IG indicated that these signals could lead to an increase volcanic activity, located in one of the most active areas of the world. 

The Galapagos, like the Hawaiian Islands, sit atop a “hot spot” over the Earth’s mantle, and are frequently subjected to volcanic activity. 

According to the IG, the deformation in the walls of the mountain is due to magma rising to the surface. 

From early April, there has been a recorded increased in the daily number of earthquakes around the volcano – which hosts the largest caldera in the islands.  Visitors can walk right up to fumaroles, can see bright yellow sulfur deposits, and take in the sulfur odor when on a hike to the volcano’s rim.  The last major eruption here was in 2005.  Eruptions here are like those of other typical shield volcanoes, such as in Hawaii.  They are generally not violent, emitting jets of lava for a few days, which make their way downhill, before things get quiet again. 

I was very fortunate to have witnessed an eruption shortly after my arrival in Galapagos in 1998. With two others, we chartered a small plane which took us right over the flowing lava – a sight I will never forget. 

A spectacular cloudless view of Sierra Negra volcano - a popular visitor site.  Sierra Negra

 

High spring tides... or rising sea levels?

Spring tides are usually a bit higher than the usual - but this time around, they exaggerate.  Many shoreline properties in the main town of Puerto Ayora, on Santa Cruz Island (where the Darwin Station is located) were under a few centimetres of water yesterday morning...  

 

High Tide

Galapagos for Families - website launched

I'm happy to announce that my new website www.galapagosforfamilies.com was launched this week. 

A family vacation in Galapagos is truly a trip of a lifetime - it's a brilliant opportunity for the children to do some independent discoveries and for the parents to re-engage their sense of wonder.

The new website goes over the advantages of a family cruise, and discusses health and safety issues, family dedicated cruises and family charters.  

Family With Iguanas

Darwin Station Director Interview on Tourism

Swen Lorenz is the first non-scientist to have been appointed as director of the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) and Research Station.   Though it's important to know about science when you're running a research station, the CDF has learned the value added of also appointing someone who knows how to manage an organization.

CNH Tours is proud to know Swen (and several other previous directors) on a first hand basis.  This interview gives a very good glimpse of the challenges and unique nature of the islands.  If you're considering a trip, we highly recommend it.

Click HERE to read the article. 

 Swen

 

 

Huffington Post uses CNH Tours as Galapagos source

A small thing for some, but a big thing for us.  We were pleased to note that Huffington Post, a well-known on-line media platform, cited CNH Tours in its report on the dismissal of the Galapagos National Park director.  We may not be big, but we're small!   

Click HERE for the story.

 

 

Head of provincial tourism is new Park Director

Well, it looks as though the park directorship has once again reverted to being a political appointment post, and not a civil service job for which people have to compete to get, against a clear set of technical requirements and experience, and training.    This risks taking us back to the disastrous revolving door directorship days of 10 years ago.  Let's hope not.

The new director is Alejandra Ordoñez, former director of tourism for the province of Galapagos.  This sends uncertain signals - does it mean the government wants to open these fragile islands to more tourism?  Already, they are under heavy pressure (one that has mostly been resisted, thankfully) for golf courses (in a water poor environment), sky-diving, sports fishing, massive hotel development...   The Galapagos National Park and Marine Reserve are notoriously challenging to manage - about the same size as Greece, 100 islands with industrial fishermen wanting to have access, tour operators wanting 500 passenger ships etc. etc...   

CNH Tours has no reason to doubt that Alejandra is up to the task - we just hope that her appointment does not signal a caving in to pressures that may undermine what these islands are world famous for - their unique biodivesity, their other worldliness feeling, a place where a moderately trained eye can see graphic manifestations of biological evolution still happening today... and finally, a one of a kind place for a trip of a lifetime.

We wish Alejandra all the best - but we continue ask why this sudden change. 

 

Alejandra

Park press release on change of directors

We've translated this (with some help from Google Translate) from the Spanish version emitted by the Park Service this past Saturday, 11 April:

The Minister of Environment, Lorena Tapia, appointed as the new Director of the Galapagos National Park Alejandra Ordoñez, Ecuadorian young professional specializing in public management and sustainability.

The Ministry of Environment welcomed the work of Dr. Arturo Izurieta for his leadership of the institution during the last period in which significant institutional achievements were made.

The new director of the Galapagos National Park, Alejandra Ordoñez, is challenged to strengthen the management of the entity in the islands and deepen the management of conservation and management of these protected areas.

Ordonez is Master in Public Management, Sustainability and Competitiveness of Tourism and has experience of working in the islands on two charges of high importance.  Throughout her career Alejandra Ordonez has been an adviser to the office of Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Tourism.

In Cuenca, was coordinator of Tourism Research Department of the Central University of Cuenca, professor of masters in tourism and sustainable development of the university.

In Galapagos, he served as Provincial Director of the Ministry of Tourism and Director of Public Use of the Galapagos National Park, among others.

Alejandra Ordoñez becomes the second woman to assume the Galapagos National Park, institution managing the protected areas of the archipelago (note from CNH Tours:  the last one, Raquel Molida, was fired for perhaps being too firm on conservation matters and rigid with established rules, in 2008), which has 335 when rangers who work in the 7 directions that compose it are:

  • Ecosystems, Public Use,
  • Environmental Management,
  • Education and Social Participation,
  • Planning,
  • Legal, and
  • Financial Management in Santa Cruz Island

The park manages 2 decentralized technical units  in San Cristobal and Isabela Islands and a technical office in Floreana Island.

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