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In Defence of the Australian Wild Horse and An Inquiry into the Pseudo Science That Condemns It

by Mae Lee Sun


The ecological benefits of wild horses from Przewalski's to American Mustangs and Australian Brumbies to Ex-moors is so vast they have been enlisted the world over to help rejuvenate ecosystems.

The ecological benefits of wild horses from Przewalski’s to Ex-moors is so vast they have been enlisted the world over to help rejuvenate ecosystems. Photo: ©Mae Lee Sun


“7. Do not harm life in order to learn about it”  

                                                                              –  Dr. Jane Goodall & Dr Marc Bekoff                                                                                                  The Ten Trusts: What We Must Do To Care For the Animals We Love


Globally, there has been increasing scientific study revealing ecological benefits of wild horses. Some of these studies indicate horse-caused regeneration of degraded ecosystems including in forested and alpine areas.  Programs occur in the Pleistocene Park-Siberia, the Norwegian Fjords region, the Andalusian region of southern Spain, the Pampas of Argentina (degraded by many years of overgrazing by sheep), parts of Romania, Pededze Valley in Latvia and national parks in the U.K. and the Sydlangeland region in Denmark, where Exmoor ponies are being reintroduced in conjunction with the Ministry of Environment.


Major, scientifically substantiated reasons for allowing existing wild horses to remain or introducing them, including in some alpine and forest habitats, concern their significant ecological contributions.  The latter include their positive roles:


(a) as removers of excess understory vegetation that mitigate the severity of bush-, forest- and grassland-fires,

(b) as preyed-upon or scavenged animals for a variety of natural predators/scavengers (e.g. dingoes, crocodiles, snakes in Australia),

(c) as soil-builders/fertilizers of soil via their feces,

(d) as creators of more abundant and dependable water sources because of their enrichment of soils, especially involving contribution of humus,

(e) as creators/diggers of wells in dry areas and breakers of snow and ice in cold areas, both of which help other wildlife survive seasonal extremes,

(f) as openers of thick bushlands and maintainers of grasslands, beneficial to many other species.

(g) as bolsterers of the food chain, or web, via their feces, because their food is not as digested as it is with ruminant herbivores and consequently a host of animals from small to large benefit from this. …. And the list goes on.


Much of this has been noted by ecologists working in the areas previously mentioned as well as by American wildlife ecologist and wild horse advocate, Craig C. Downer in his book The Wild Horse Conspiracy. Australia lags behind in the recognition of current, unbiased and peer-reviewed scientific research in regard to wild equids’ benefits.  Downer feels our country should take into account humane and non-lethal management practices and establish sustainable population numbers of wild horses in National Parks like Guy Fawkes and Alpine National Parks as well as other alpine and forested public lands and in the great Outback itself.


Propped up by widely disseminated yet unscientific claims and the absence of credible baseline research concerning wild horse populations, too often anti-wild horse interests have prevailed. Indeed, the bias against many introduced life forms in Australia runs deep, and, though justified to a certain extent, can become overly dogmatic and ignore new conservation thinking in favour of currently needed ecological balance and biodiversity, given present ecological conditions.


Several cases of this bias include outrageous, sensation seeking articles claiming there are cannibal brumbies roaming the high country.  Fear tactics and such hyperbole has been instigated by well-known anti-brumby academics. Some of these academics apparently failed to carefully consider the positive benefits of the wild horses which Downer presented as a poster with accompanying essay at the Ecological Society of Australia’s annual conference  (Alice Springs, October, 2014) to the dismay of the incumbent anti-brumby fanatics who tried to persuade him otherwise.   It is also likely that an exaggeration of wild horse population density has occurred. This involves the aerial counting of brumbies gathered around natural water sources shared by diverse bands. These localized population densities could then be applied to larger areas resulting in the over-magnification of population numbers.


“In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught.”                              – Baba Dioum                                                                    1968, at the triennial meeting of the General Assembly of The International Union For The Conservation of Nature (IUCN)


Similar injustice has been compounded by large, government-funded projects aimed at removing invasive species, but without considering their in-depth ecological relationships, as they have become established over many generations, and how these species may actually be filling ecological niches, playing ecological roles, that are quite important to the integrity of today’s ecosystems. There must be additional funding for professional organizations and academic institutions to undertake truly objective investigations concerning the positive ecological contributions wild horses make.

Curious and social, brumbies culled from Kosciusko, are lucky to have found their way to a sanctuary to be gentled and rehired. Photo:©Mae Lee Sun

This matter is serious. We mustn’t forget the notorious Tempe Downs, Lake Gregory and Guy Fawkes massacre of wild horses , by the thousands, who were callously gut shot  and left to slowly die.   The public has been assured such shootings are accurate, quick and humane.  Had local citizens not reported the visual truth of what had happened, the government and its contractors would have hidden it-  mares with prolapsed foetuses spilling out as they lay suffering in agony.  Others left to suffer and die horrendous deaths.  It is also no secret that the culling of horses in Australia keep alive a greedy and lucrative trade in horses for slaughter-for the most part, dog food and overseas human consumption.


Often motivated by political and financial gain, and without considering other non-horse related factors of impact, many brumby enemies are blindly driven to promote the unjust culling of thousands of these unique and highly evolved beings. For example, they deliberately downplay all the millions of cattle and sheep, rabbits, pigs and foxes, that have been introduced –also through no fault of their own- in Australia, and single out the brumbies for elimination on a scale that is unprecedented.  And, to be clear, this is not about pitting one type of animal against the other in a contest of worthiness. It’s the unscrupulous blindness to wild horses as legitimate contributors to a harmoniously interlinked biodiversity of species that has evolved in recent centuries in many parts of Australia. We humans ignore at our peril their significant role in the evolution of the Australian ecosystem during the past two and a half centuries since their introduction – during which time enormous changes have been wrought by European/human settlement.

Impacts in the Snowy River region include what human settlement brought about to include the building of the dam, tourism, expansion of the ski fields and climate change and the brumbies scapegoated.

Impacts in the Snowy Mountains include environmental damage human settlement brought about to include the building of the dam, tourism, recreational vehicles, expansion of the ski fields and climate change – with the brumbies scapegoated. Photo: ©Mae Lee Sun

It would be a terrible injustice and betrayal for Australians to callously set up these unique and wonderful beings for tragic demise given that a substantial number of ecologists have concluded that hardly any ‘pristine’ wilderness ecosystems are left in the world. They urge a good hard look at what we propose for eradication, especially when by these standards, this just might be ourselves.

Many of these ecologists and scientists confirm Global Warming as the primary cause of species decline and extinction. It has permanently changed life as we know it. The Nature Conservancy states that this current rate of climatic change threatens at least one-fourth of the Earth’s species with extinction by 2050. It signals that many of these species are currently rushing in their migrations to other areas in a desperate endeavour to survive serious changes to their habitat that are global in scope.


“These species forced to translocate in order to survive are often branded as ‘invaders’, even though such translocations have always occurred during times of upheaval throughout the thousands and millions of years of Earth’s history,” states Downer.  The changes we see taking place in areas like the high country and even the outback, can be mitigated by the presence of the horses rather than blame them for changes that are occurring as result of global warming and ecosystems working to adjust or outright survive.


Nobel Laureate, Dr Peter Doherty, a veterinary surgeon and medical researcher, of the University of Melbourne, joined 35 other Laureates in signing the Mainau Declaration on Climate Change on July 3, 2015 in Germany.  At a press conference prior to the signing, he stated in reference to those dismissive of it (Climate Change):


“All scientists are comfortable with skepticism. But the difference between skepticism and denial is that the skeptic engages. If you are a skeptic, you talk to other researchers, you look at the data. If you’re in denial, you simply reject everything that’s being published.”    – Dr Peter Doherty, Nobel LaureateAt a press conference prior to the signing the Mainau Declaration on Climate Change on July 3, 2015


Perhaps this is something similarly dismissive ecologists, scientists and academics in conservation in Australia ought to take note of when it comes to a fair and humane investigation of wild horses. Especially now that thousands of Australians have risen in outrage against recently announced culls of Australia’s wild horses. Here are some of the major reasons the public supports keeping them free:


1) Wild horses actively and holistically contribute to wilderness ecosystems. They do so in ways that benefit many other species with which they are naturally, holistically and symbiotically related, including humans.  As already mentioned, they dig for water in dry areas and break through ice and snow in colder areas, thus ensuring the survival of many other less powerful or capable species. This has been well documented; and there are many similar examples.


2) Some political and environmental groups have denied that there are any positive benefits of wild horses – which is patently not possible. They base their argument for the removal of wild horses on twisted, filtered, or otherwise unreliable or outright fabricated reports and pseudo ‘evidence’ that lacks authentication by a rigorous application of the scientific method, e.g. again the farcical Cannibal Brumby.  They claim environmental changes have occurred as a result of the horse’s presence ignoring such impacts as the Snowy River Dam, expansion of the ski fields, 4×4 recreational vehicles, climate change,  focusing claims of damage throughout KNP on a purposely narrow spot.


3) Those advocating for brumby removal often have blatant conflicts of interests. They are, in fact, involved in private enterprise that would profit from the horses’ removal. They neither see this issue clearly nor weigh it objectively, precisely because they aim to profit from massive brumby removal.  This begs a few questions- Can and do wildlife management companies  or contractors get paid twice for the same horse? Once by the government and then at public or private sales? If you’re doing academic or government contracted research on the brumbies, is it a conflict of interest to also sell a few? If you own a wildlife management company (aka removal of brumbies) is it a conflict of interest to be simultaneously employed by a government agency with ties to the horses removal?


4) Reliable insider sources report that corruption in the National Parks & Wildlife Service (NPWS) goes deep.  Some sources have mentioned the stonewalling of true research-this dictates that only ‘evidence’ of so-called ‘damage’ is admissible when it comes to the free-roaming wild horses in the final reports resulting from government commissioned or sanctioned research. Consequently these investigations present a distorted view of wild horse’s behavioural patterns and of their environmental impacts in national park ecosystems. They omit wild horses’ beneficial contributions, e.g. their reseeding of native grasses, their bush- and forest-fire mitigation via control of underbrush and dry grass, their significant contribution of humus to build healthier soils, their successful seeding of many plant species including natives … and the list goes on. These sources suggests a deliberate cover-up of such benefits.


Horses have served the Australian public since their first arrival in 1788, with many equine soldiers originating from Walers and brumby stock. Photo: ©Mae Lee Sun

Horses have served the Australian public as labourers, soldiers, transportation and mates since their first arrival in 1788, with many equines serving in the defence forces originating from Walers and brumby stock. Photo: ©Mae Lee Sun

5) A horse is a horse whether living wild or competing in the Olympics. The label of ‘feral’ or ‘invasive species’ will never ever change their DNA and ability to be curious beings capable of expressing complex emotions and of creating social bonds with each other, other animals and even us humans. The horses will continue to “struggle to survive” (Darwin), evolve and adapt to the various ecosystems in which they find themselves and to fill their ecological niche.  They are in fact one of the most ancient species among us due to their bodily, psychological and emotional intelligence.  What other species can both live in domestication and the wild and make such contributions as helping military veterans suffering from PTSD and the physically disabled heal, grow a thriving vegetable garden straight out their poo, face rioting street mobs in loud urban settings as a member of the police force, and rejuvenate forests?


6) The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in Non-human Animals has established the existence of human-like levels of consciousness in non-human animals. This declaration asserts that many animals exhibit intentional behaviours and experience affective states of a high level, meaning they can think and feel as we humans do. This alone should prevent the kind of lethal disposal, especially shooting, of the wild horses. To proceed with the announced culls in spite of this knowledge would constitute blatant cruelty and inhumanity. Once you know, you cannot “not know.” No excuse for doing something that is wrong is acceptable. The Cambridge Declaration was written by neuroscientist,  Dr Philip Steven Low and a prominent international group of cognitive neuroscientists, neuro-pharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists and signed at the University of Cambridge, England, on July 7, 2012 in the presence of world-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking.


In a Q & A in 2014 with Wild Horse Journal, Dr. Low referred to the aerial culling of brumbies in Australia as ‘barbaric’ in response to the RSPCAs assertion that aerial culling was ‘kind’.  He further stated:


Not acting like barbarians should be a mainstream, not a fringe movement.”              – Dr. Philip Steven Low                                                                                                                     2014, Wild Horse Journal, in response to the RSPCAs assertion that aerial culling was ‘kind’


7) What holds any nation, community, and family together is their story.  The heart and soul of how modern-day Australia came to be lies in the courage of everyday men and women who overcame extraordinary odds to set hand to toil in a rough and rugged land, battling under harsh conditions to homestead and make a go of it.   It is undeniable that in Australia, they did so with the horse firmly by their sides as workmates, friends and fellow soldiers.  Hauling logs, transporting goods, being conscripted during times of war and shipped thousands of kilometres away to face enemy fire with 169,000 Australian horses, of the millions the world over who went, giving their lives to defend our freedom in WWI – through all these trials and tribulations the horse has been there with us humans as in a marriage “through thick and through thin.”  What better tribute and thanks to horse kind than to allow horses to live freely and naturally in areas where they contribute positively and fulfil an important ecological role?


8) The Snowy River country of New South Wales possesses a story, legacy and mystique like no other among regions inhabited by horseman and rural, grazier families. For generation upon generation, folks from the Snowy River country have carried forth qualities and values that express Australia’s national character, such as courage, honesty, fairness, reverence for the land and its animal inhabitants, and stewardship for all the living creatures that compose a life community, be they animals or plants.


The brumbies are inseparable from country living and Australian values and are a major draw for hundreds of thousands of domestic and international visitors to the region and why national treasures, cultural legends, icons, bush poets and songwriters the likes of Henry Lawson, Glenrowan (Will Ogilvie), Banjo Paterson and The Man From Snowy River, and Elyne Mitchell’s Silver Brumby live on and are synonymous with “The land down under.”

Craig's Hut

Craig’s Hut in the Victorian high country and made famous in the Man From Snowy River, have the brumbies as well as Banjo Patterson to thank for bringing visitors the world over to the region. Photo: ©Mae Lee Sun

A New Era for Earth

“New era” conservationists who recognize that the Anthropocene is upon us, as well as wild horse advocates, high country residents, and graziers question why the Australian wild horse is being singled out for the above described adverse scrutiny.


Award- winning author, journalist and consultant for the New Scientist, U.K.’s Fred Pearce has recently published a very timely and thought-provoking book entitled The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Nature’s Salvation. In this book, Pearce reveals how research papers published in journals dating from the 1920s established the branch of modern biology known as ‘Invasion Biology’. This particularly began with Dr Charles Elton, an academic who was out to make a name for himself. Pearce describes how Invasive Biology became very unquestioning and dictatorial in its judgements against “alien species” … species that none-the-less had evolved over millions of years on planet Earth and that often represented those best suited to restore the ecological wounds upon ecosystems that have been thoughtlessly inflicted by humans. The branded “aliens” were then subject to a “target mentality” that overlooked their positive, even restorative, contributions to an ecosystem in which time and circumstance had placed them. Many species were condemned without any objective studies to substantiate such put down. Since this time, the metaphor of being ‘invaded’ has exploded such that today there is a proven bias amongst many scientists who are “rarely been open to other interpretations and rarely investigate aliens with beneficial or more nuanced impacts on their surroundings.”


This “target mentality” blinds these otherwise well-educated people to the merits of many species that share the global ecosystem as their ancient and long-standing, multi-million-year home and place of evolution.


Researcher Jennifer Ruesink of the University of Washington, referenced in The New Wild, notes that a bias toward the ‘invasive species’ is ‘inevitable’ among scientists who only test using standards with a prejudiced approach to the species being examined. And this gets into the quicksand realm of circular reasoning, predetermined conclusions, filtered evidence, tendentious, rather than objective, research, and the “cherry picking” of certain facts to the exclusion of many others. True objective research must seek the Big Picture concerning any subject. And there is no science that more emphasizes the “Big Picture,” the “Whole”, than Ecology, the study of Life and its Interrelationships both to the biotic and the abiotic world. Here are Ruesnik’s own words concerning this form of blind judgement and condemnation of species that have been rashly labelled as “alien”:


“But if that is the only hypothesis they test, then it [invasive biology] seems a poor academic discipline.  And if general conclusions about alien species are drawn from such a biased research base, then we have a problem. The big claims made for the dangers posed by the generality of invaders may be thoroughly unreliable.  So may the conclusion that we have a duty to try to prevent them all.  It is scientific mythmaking.” – Jennifer Ruesink                                 The New Wild: Why invasive species will be nature’s salvation


Pearce reveals that even research organizations like the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) are guilty of such bias. In its Global Biodiversity Outlook, UNEP presumes that extinctions of various species have been caused by “invasives” in spite of a complete lack of substantiating data to back up its claims.  These prestigiously published condemnations of species are then cited without question and recited hundreds of times in research papers that consequently possess minimal, compromised, or outright bogus scientific merit. In other words, they do not reflect the real in-the-field situation in spite of their claim of being “representative”.


Downer, for the above reason, concurs, saying:


“Insidious injustice and falsehood may continue to snowball … because too many people lack real interest and caring about the subject at hand and of a sufficient degree to inquire further. Needless to say, such snowballing injustice and inaccuracy occurs in many other branches of society, including education and government, with its adopted policies that come as a result of distorted reports and recommendations.” – Craig Downer


All this sounds eerily familiar as concerns official investigations of Australia’s wild horses.  If bias creeps in at the level of a reputable international committee such as UNEP, it can in Australia as well.  So few professionals (from academics to scientists and the media) currently question any of the largely negative judgements as to whether or not brumbies belong.  Scientist and layman alike must consider emerging scientific thinking concerning what is “wild and balanced”.  Global Warming has become rampant and has been brought on by atmospheric pollution tied to our modern human lifestyle and its disruption of ecosystem processes with attendant annihilation of species. There has been and continues a gross “over management” and interference with the terrestrial, aquatic and atmospheric realms.


“The non-native, feral, and exotic designations given by agencies are not merely reflections of their failure to understand modern science, but also a reflection of their desire to preserve old ways of thinking to keep alive the conflict between a species (wild horses) with no economic value anymore (by law) and the economic value of commercial livestock.” – Jay Kirkpatrick and Patricia M. Fazio Are North America’s wild horses native?, September 2006


Consequently there is a desperate need today for people to “let go and let Nature and God” restore Life on Earth. We desperately require the virtue of humility in the face of all the dreadful destruction that is going on today.  And, although the life community may not be restored to the ‘untouched’ wilderness it was centuries before, still it can be saved if we people only allow it to heal, to do what is innate in itself to recuperate from the ruthless assault it has experienced, especially since the past few centuries, roughly since Australia was colonized.

Even in remote wilderness areas like Denali National Park, studies are continually being conducted on human presence and the environmental impact to flora and fauna.

Even in remote wilderness areas like Denali National Park, studies are continually being conducted on human presence and its environmental impact to flora and fauna. Photo: ©Mae Lee Sun

Even with its millions of acres, in a place as unpopulated and ruggedly wild as Alaska, scientific studies have revealed how modern civilization is impacting the behaviour of grizzly bears, caribou, wolves, moose, etc. In Denali National Park, for example, human footsteps, voices, engine sounds and camera clicks emanating from tour buses, hikers and small aircraft are being investigated for producing notable and life-altering effects on the above-named wilderness denizens. In other words, the effects caused by ‘human presence’.    This is where we must start- the impact WE HUMANS are having and not the other way around.


A recent example in Australia of other-than-horse impact is the decline of the southern corroboree frog.  Research is indicating that there might be only 10 left in the world and the findings point to the spread of the chytrid fungus, originating in Africa, that can be carried/spread through other infected amphibians as well as on human boots.  The reasons behind how it spread include habitat destruction and climate change which effects the temperature at which the fungus lives.

An Urgent Plea for the Wild Horses and their Place in our World

In Australia, we can and must do much better in addressing our highly evolved, sensitive, intelligent and powerful wild horses. Certainly we would not be in our present position of modern comfort and convenience were it not for horsekind. Urgently needed is an unbiased oversight by progressive ecologists and conservationists who are capable of moving the wild horse conversation and its conservation strategy forward.  The Centre for Compassionate Conservation (CCC) at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), has such people.  I propose that this institution is capable of taking on this vital challenge with its highly qualified and motivated, interdisciplinary research faculty. Its enlightened approach and actualized connection to highly regarded global expertise in wildlife conservation and animal welfare would seek proper justice for our brumbies and their deserved place in our shared world. One of UTS’s collaborating organizations is the Jane Goodall Institute whose reputation is positively renowned throughout the world.

What could be better than having environmental and animal science and animal welfare working together?  Guggenheim Fellow, Dr. Marc Bekoff, and UTS environmental scientist, professor, Dr. Daniel Ramp, both of the CfCC, have deplored the wide gap that exists today between conservationists and those of us who want to protect animals, honouring them as individuals as well as collectively.  Bekoff is author of dozens articles and books on ecology, conservation and animal behaviour to include, ‘Animals Matter: A biologist explains why we should treat animals with compassion and respect’, ‘Ignoring Nature No More: The case for compassionate conservation’, and co-authored with environmentalist, Jane Goodall, ‘The Ten Trusts: What we must do to care for the animals we love’. He and Ramp, also a published scholar, contend that by considering animals from a place of compassion, we humans can positively affect emerging conservation programs both in Australia and around the world. Such programs would respectively promote and uplift:


(1) the conservation of biodiversity and its restored interspecies balance and complementarity; and

(2) the experienced quality of life all conscious beings individually and   collectively share.


For these and related reasons, the announced brumby culls in Kosciuszko and other Australian national parks should be called off.  Government officials, elected representatives, ecologists, and academics alike would be remiss to ignore the considerable positives concerning Australia’s extraordinary brumbies as well as non-lethal alternatives to their cruel culling. We must not allow bias against free and naturally living horses to pass unquestioned. And we must question whether public lands are being over managed, as for example with the creation of the Snowy River Dam, extension of the ski fields and the killing off of introduced species merely because they’re introduced, although naturalized. Urgently needed is serious and unbiased research upon whose results an enlightened even visionary plan for to a brighter future for all of life can come together.  We must piece together the Big Picture based on a sober assessment of just where both we humans and all of life stand today.


Compassion for animals isn’t incompatible with preserving biodiversity and doing the best science possible. In fact, it is a must. Mistreatment of animals often produces poor conservation outcomes and bad science. It is also immoral.Only through compassion can we advance global conservation.                                                                – Marc Bekoff and Daniel Ramp                                                                                           Compassion in conservation-Don’t be cruel to be kind, New Scientist, June 18, 2014


For what little of wild nature we have left, still the vitality of any species is preserved in the wild and the latent capacity of life to recover is, indeed, awesome. And whilst this assertion may seem complex, such makes perfect sense to all of the flora and fauna and their diverse species and individuals who intrinsically connect to one another. These are – we all are indispensable players in evolutionary events that are reflected on all micro- to all macro-levels.  For the “wild” – for Life to be more than just what we allow it, we have to give Nature a chance, let it “do its thing”. We must give it deserved respect and the benefit of the doubt. And of primary importance is our duty to defend ALL that is included within it.


For more information:

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The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in Non-Human Animals

The Centre For Compassionate Conservation- University of Technology Sydney

Jane Goodall Institute- Australia

The Wild Horse Conspiracy

Guy Fawkes Brumby Massacre

Pleistocene Park Steppe Ecosystem

Rewilding Europe

Written by maeleesun

Comments (3 comments)

  • Sally
    September 17, 2016 at 6:04 PM

    Well researched & well written. This is what we need – a broad spectrum approach to issues of conservation & research & more research done on current & past impacts & their likely affect in the future.

  • Mark
    September 17, 2016 at 7:43 AM

    I agree that the animals can achieve a balance in the environment. They need to be left alone by people.Hunting is disrupting this balance and clear felling of the trees destroys the forest. We should be separating our stock animals in their own areas and using better fences. We should not be using poison baits which simply damage the environment more and disrupt the balance of the wildlife,and we need some predatory animals to provide a population balance in the wild.

  • September 16, 2016 at 8:54 PM

    Hi Mae.

    I am going to have to read this brilliant article many times to be able to take it all in.
    What you have outlined here is inspirational and I will always have a copy close in hand.
    You are a true courageous friend to these magnificent horses and I cannot thank you enough.
    I have shared the above on the Calan Horse Sanctuary Facebook page, I hope you do not mind.

    A real pleasure to know you my friend.


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