There is consensus that a variety of direct and
indirect anthropogenic stressors may be linked
to biodiversity loss worldwide (Ehrlich 1994;
Pimm et al. 1995). Although direct persecu-
tion and habitat destruction contributes more
to extinction risks in the majority of the species
(Dodd 1987; Caughley & Sinclair 1994; Bon-
net et al. 1999), intentional but non-exploitative
killing of wildlife (i.e., retaliatory killing) could
be an important but overlooked stressor (Mishra
1997; Kissui 2008; Liu et al. 2011). It is clear
that formulating conservation strategies for spe-
cies that are perceived as dangerous to humans
can be difcult given the need to balance human
and wildlife welfare. This is especially true for
snakes, against which humans harbor deep-seat-
ed prejudices (Ohman & Mineka 2003; Prokop
et al. 2009; Fita et al. 2010; Prokop & Fancovi-
From a biological standpoint, studies have
identied combinations of behavioral and life-
history traits and seasonal factors that affect
mortality patterns in snakes. Reed & Shine
(2002) found extinction risk in Australian elapid
snakes to be related to foraging habit and com-
bat behavior wherein ambush predators and
snakes that do not engage in male-male combat
were at a higher risk of extinction. Bonnet et
al. (1999) found that snakes that dispersed over
long distances were more at risk than their more
sedentary conspecics, and were more likely to
be killed during the mating season. Although a
number of studies have investigated patterns of
Hamadryad Vol. 36, No. 2, pp. 91 – 100, 2013.
Copyright 2013 Centre for Herpetology, Madras Crocodile Bank Trust.
Factors inuencing human hostility
to King Cobras (Ophiophagus hannah)
in the Western Ghats of India.
P. Gowri Shankar1*, Aditya Singh2, S. R. Ganesh3 and Romulus Whitaker4
1 No. 14/60, Shakthinagar, Behind TTK, Dooravaninagar Post,
Bangalore, Karnataka 560 016, India
2 Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology, University of Wisconsin-Madison,
1630 Linden Dr., Madison, Wisconsin 53706, USA
3 Chennai Snake Park, Rajbhavan post, Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India
4 Agumbe Rainforest Research Station, Suralihalla, Agumbe, Thirthahalli Taluk,
Shivamogga District - 577411, Karnataka, India
*Corresponding author, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
ABSTRACT.– This paper investigates people’s perceptions toward King Cobras in the tropical
rainforests of the Western Ghats ecoregion of southern India. We built logistic regression
models to test if people’s perceptions (to kill/not to kill the snake) were inuenced by
factors such as the snake’s size and defensiveness, whether the snake was found near
human habitation, the time of encounter and season. The model correctly classied over
80% of instances when people expressed an inclination to kill the snake. Results support
our expectation that the snake’s defensiveness escalates the probability that the snake
will be killed, but are contrary in that smaller snakes are more likely to be killed than
larger ones, especially when encountered away from human habitation. Findings suggest
a need for slight refocusing of King Cobra conservation outreach efforts towards smaller
snakes, especially in regions where sizeable human habitations exist near fragmented
King Cobra habitat.
KEYWORDS.– Agumbe, ARRS, King Cobra, logistic regression, mortality risk.
Shankar.indd 91 03-07-2013 05:57:27
92 Hamadryad [Vol. 36, No. 2
human-caused mortality in snakes (Bonnet et
al. 1999; Lode 2000; Whitaker & Shine 2000;
Akani et al. 2002; Ciesiolkiewicz et al. 2006),
most have focused on factors inuencing indi-
rect or accidental mortality, such as via vehicu-
lar accidents. For example, Row et al. (2007)
estimated road mortality to cause an increase in
extinction probability from 7.3% to 99% over
500 years for black rattlesnakes in Ontario, Can-
ada. Whereas estimates for intentional anthro-
pogenic mortality are generally rare (Bonnet et
al. 1999), Akani et al. (2002) could attribute ca.
50% of cases of snake mortality to intentional
killing by humans in the Niger Delta. Akani
et al. (2002) also found a signicant seasonal
pattern to snake encounters in human habitat
wherein most events were related with rainfall
events that forced snakes from their natural ref-
uge to places inhabited by humans.
From the human standpoint, negative percep-
tions of snakes are believed to have evolution-
ary roots (Ohman & Mineka 2003) and have
been observed as behavioral manifestations
across countries and cultures (Prokop et al.
2009; Fita et al. 2010). As a result, conservation
programs focused on snakes have to deal with
two distinct issues: 1) patterns of snake behav-
ior that put snakes in direct contact with humans
and, 2) overcoming inherent human responses
to encounters with snakes that make outreach
and sensitization difcult. Sensitization is es-
pecially difcult when the species involved are
venomous and easily identied as such. The is-
sue is further compounded in developing coun-
tries where large human populations exist in
close proximity to wildlife habitat and where
the largest number of cases of envenomation
occur (Harrison et al. 2009). Factors that affect
the ability of snakes and humans to cohabitate
are therefore important both from snake conser-
vation and human welfare standpoints. This is
especially important for a mega diverse country
like India that reports a disproportionate number
of snake envenomation cases globally (mortal-
ity estimates ranging widely from about 1300 to
50 000; Mohapatra et al. 2011)
Figure 1. Location of Agumbe (○) in the Western Ghats of South India overlaid on a terrain-shaded map. Loca-
tions where encounters were reported from are shown as lled circles (●).
Shankar.indd 92 03-07-2013 05:57:27
June, 2013] Human Hostility to King Cobras 93
The focus of this study, the King Cobra
(Ophiophagus hannah, Cantor 1836) is the larg-
est venomous snake in the world (Tin-Myint et
al. 1991; Das 1996; Whitaker & Captain 2004;
Inger et al. 2009). Largely diurnal, the snake
can reach up to 5.5 m in length, feeds mainly on
snakes, is oviparous, and is the only snake that
builds a nest (Aagaard 1924; Smith 1943; Whi-
taker 1978; Daniel 2002; Whitaker & Captain
2004). Classied ‘Vulnerable’ by the IUCN (In-
ger et al. 2009), King Cobras are mostly found
in and around the tropical rainforests of India,
southern China and southeast Asia. They also
inhabit a variety of microhabitats such as man-
grove swamps, agricultural elds, and have been
reported from degraded semi-evergreen and de-
ciduous forest fragments in India. Although data
on population trends of King Cobras in India are
insufcient, it is thought that continuing habitat
destruction and degradation may be negatively
inuencing their numbers (Inger et al. 2009).
Although many communities in India consid-
er snakes (especially cobras, Naja spp.) sacred
due to religious beliefs (Joshi & Joshi 2010),
King Cobras are often killed when they come
in contact with humans. Although the exact rea-
sons are unknown, King Cobras in the region
likely enter human habitations to seek other
snakes (their major prey), which in turn, are
probably attracted to a higher relative density
of rodents around agricultural elds and house-
hold granaries. Human reactions to King Cobra
encounters in India and elsewhere may be a
complex combination of societal and situational
factors. Such factors could include the behavior
of the snake (i.e., level of defensiveness), the
location where the snake is encountered (e.g.,
inside sleeping quarters of a dwelling), seasonal
factors (such as during monsoons when burrows
used as refuge by snakes are ooded, and during
the mating season) or socio-cultural factors (re-
ligious beliefs, levels of formal education, prior
exposure to sensitization).
This study investigates factors inuencing
people’s perceptions (intention to kill, or leave a
snake alone) in events of encounters with King
Cobras in and around villages situated in tropi-
cal rainforests in southern India. We hypoth-
esize that 1) people would be more hostile to
highly defensive snakes, as a highly defensive
snake may pose a greater immediate danger to
people in the vicinity; 2) people would be more
hostile to larger and healthier snakes, as a large
(and healthy) snake could be perceived as more
dangerous with respect to quickness, strength
and perceived venom delivery than a smaller (or
sicker) one; 3) people would be more inclined to
kill a snake when encountered inside or near hu-
man habitation because of the perceived direct
danger posed to humans and 4) people would be
more inclined to kill a snake when encountered
in the dark, as darkness could be perceived to
confer an elevated opportunity to the snake to
either escape or evade detection. Although so-
cietal and/or educational factors may strongly
inuence people’s perceptions, we do not cur-
rently have data on socio-economic or cultural
We believe that information on what shapes
people’s reactions to King Cobra encounters
could be invaluable from both public welfare
and management standpoints. Such information
could aid King Cobra conservation by improv-
ing management of snake-human encounters,
as well as for retooling conservation, education
and rst-response strategies. To the extent of our
knowledge, this is the rst study of its kind in
the Indian subcontinent.
Material and Methods
Study area.– Agumbe is situated in a reserve
forest in the Western Ghats Ecoregion of In-
dia (13°30’15” E, 75°5’25” N, Fig.1). The re-
gion harbors high levels of biodiversity, much
of which is endemic. Not only is the Western
Ghats ecoregion a global biodiversity hotspot
(Mittermeier et al. 1998; Myers et al. 2000; My-
ers 2003) it was also recently designated a UN-
ESCO World Heritage Site (UNESCO 2012).
The physiography consists of forested hills,
tropical evergreen rainforest (Champion & Seth
1968; Ramaswamy et al. 2001) and oodplains
characterized by a mosaic of agriculture (paddy)
and plantations (areca, coconut, plantain, aca-
cia). The region is one of the wettest regions in
southern India and receives an annual rainfall
of ca. 8000 mm during the southwest monsoon
(June–September). Terrain elevation ranges
from 150 m to 800 m.
Data collection.– A research program initiated
by the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station
(hereafter ARRS) has been monitoring human-
Shankar.indd 93 03-07-2013 05:57:27
94 Hamadryad [Vol. 36, No. 2
King Cobra encounters since 2005. Data for
this study were collected over a ve-year period
from 2005–2009. The ARRS conducts long-
term ecological research into the biology of
the King Cobra as well as provides educational
and outreach programs to village communities
in the region. The outreach program at ARRS
has ensured that most, if not all, King Cobra-
human encounters are immediately reported and
responded to. For each ‘rescue’ call received at
the ARRS, a team comprised of a trained snake
catcher and community outreach specialists
were immediately dispatched. On arrival, the
team evacuated all people from the immediate
location and outreach specialists conducted a
semi-structured interview of the rst responders
and the owners of the property. Outreach spe-
cialists also delivered a comprehensive “snake-
talk” to people present at the location. In the
meantime, the snake rescue specialist safely
captured the snake using hooked sticks and cloth
bags (Fig. 2, following the protocol by Whitak-
er 1970). The rescue specialist took length and
weight measurements to the nearest centimeter
and gram respectively, determined its gender,
deposited it in custom-made bags, and prepared
it to be safely released in a forested region at
least a kilometer away from the capture locality.
A brief health assessment of the snake was also
carried out. We termed the health
‘good’ when the snake had a more
or less circular body cross section
and the vertebral column not visible
through the skin, ‘moderate’ when
the snake had a more or less round
body with slightly evident vertebral
column and ‘poor’ when the snake
had a tented body with the vertebral
column and rib bones easily visible.
For each such call, details of the
physical environment and the (pre-
capture) opinion of the responders
towards either killing or not killing
the snake were also recorded.
The behavior of the snake was
assessed by taking into considera-
tion the objective opinion of the
rst responders, and by observa-
tions made by the team before the
rescue commenced. The behavior
was judged ‘very defensive’ when
the snake reared up hooded, hissed and charged
when rst approached; ‘defensive’ when the
snake reared up hooded, hissed and charged
once disturbed during capture; ‘moderate’ when
the snake showed moderate resistance to han-
dling and ‘docile’ when the snake did not ex-
hibit any signs of vigorous resistance during the
course of rescue.
Statistical analysis.– As the response of re-
sponders (intention to kill/ not kill) was best
modeled as a binary (1/0) choice, we built logis-
tic regression models to model the response as
a function of the variables: snake defensiveness
(categorical: ve levels: very defensive to very
Table 1. Number of total King Cobra rescue calls (2005–2009) received
at ARRS, cross-tabulated by location where snake was encountered.
Rescue calls in the breeding season are shown in bold typeface.
Month Field House Forest Plan-
Jan 4 7 11
Feb 3 6 1 10
Mar 12 9 3 3 2 29
Apr 3 2 1 6
May 1 6 1 1 9
Jun 1 3 1 5
Jul 1 5 6
Aug 2 1 4 1 8
Sep 1 4 1 2 8
Oct 2 1 1 1 5
Nov 3 3 6
Dec 1 2 3
Total 30 48 12 9 7 106
Figure 2. An adult King Cobra being rescued from a
well near Agumbe. Photo P. Gowri Shankar.
Shankar.indd 94 03-07-2013 05:57:27
June, 2013] Human Hostility to King Cobras 95
Figure 3. Surface plots showing the probability that a snake would be killed (on the z-axis) as a function of snake
length (y-axis: min = 55cm, max = 400cm.) and time-of-day (x-axis; extremes denote midnight, axis midpoint
denotes midday). Note: the z-axis is scaled from 0 to 1 in all subplots, probabilities are symmetric about the
midpoint of the time (x) axis. Subplots grouped by combinations of whether a snake was defensive (subplot a,
c) or docile (subplot b, d); if it was found in human habitation (subplot a, b) or in an open area (subplot c, d).
the snake was excluded as a predictor as none of
the interviewees could give consistent guesses
on the gender of the snake, and it likely did not
inuence their eventual perception. We sequen-
tially tested all main and all possible two-way
interaction effects between all variables for sig-
nicance. We sequentially dropped all non-sig-
nicant effects until only signicant interaction
effects and associated main effects remained.
Preliminary analyses revealed that defensive-
ness was better modeled as a binary variable
docile), health (categorical: three levels; bad,
moderate, good), month (categorical), snake
size (length in cm.), location (binary, near or
inside house, well, shed or granary = 1, 0 else-
where) and time of encounter (sine-transformed
to scale midday to 1.0 and midnight to -1.0). We
did not use the snake’s mass as a proxy for size
because 1) mass is highly correlated with length
and 2) people would most likely nd it easier to
estimate length as opposed to mass as a proxy
for size. Being a perception study, the gender of
Shankar.indd 95 03-07-2013 05:57:28
96 Hamadryad [Vol. 36, No. 2
and was thus recoded as such (very defensive or
defensive = 1, moderate or docile = 0). Because
the snake’s defensiveness could be a major fac-
tor determining public perception, we separate-
ly modeled the snake’s defensiveness as a func-
tion of size, month (or March = 1 as a binary
variable denoting the end of breeding season),
time of day and location. Finally, we used Mo-
ran’s I (Moran 1950) to test for spatial autocor-
relation in standardized residuals from the nal
model. All statistical analysis was conducted
using SAS software, Version 9.2 (SAS System
for Windows © 2002–2008, SAS Institute, Inc.
Cary, North Carolina, USA).
A total of 107 rescue calls were attended to be-
tween 2005 and 2009 (mean: 21 ± 7SD Year-1).
The maximum number of rescues were conduct-
ed in 2006 (N = 29) and 2009 (N = 28). Report-
ing patterns did not follow any predictable trend
across years (P > 0.1). Across months however,
rescue calls increased signicantly in post-win-
ter months (Jan–March mean: 16.66 ± 10.69
SD) in comparison to the rest of the year (Apr-
Dec: mean: 6.33 ± 1.87 SD, P < 0.001). Rescue
calls peaked in March, when
there were approximately
seven times as many rescues
as the annual average (mean
excluding March: 7.09 ± 2.3
SD). It should be noted that
the breeding season for King
Cobras starts around Janu-
ary, peaks in March, and culminates with
hatching of the young near late July or
early August. As expected, the majority
of snakes were reported from around hu-
man habitation (88.68% in any human
use area, 45.28% of total inside houses,
Table 1). Although no trend was apparent
for non-breeding months, a large major-
ity of the calls during the early breeding
season (Jan–Feb) involved snakes en-
countered in houses (>60%) and in ag-
ricultural elds or plantations in March
(~40%). Around 80% of the snakes were
found in good health, and on average
measured 297.05 ± 6.38 cm in length
(N = 107, range: 55.5–396.24 cm) and
weighed 4464.54 ± 286.03 g (N = 63,
range: 22–12 000 g). Responders expressed an
inclination to kill the snake in only 14% of the
We used a complementary log-log link func-
tion to t the logistic regression model as re-
sponse proportions were skewed (14% kill, 86%
not kill). One observation did not have sufcient
information on covariates and was dropped from
all subsequent analyses. After removing all non-
signicant effects, the logistic regression model
retained only four variables (Table 2), and cor-
rectly classied 83.8% of all instances where
people wanted the snake killed. The main effect
of the variable coding for human habitation was
signicant (P = 0.002) as were the interaction
effects of length of snake and defensiveness (P
= 0.001), and the time of day and defensiveness
(P = 0.02). Tests for spatial autocorrelation in re-
siduals were not signicant (Moran’s I, P > 0.1)
indicating no signicant spatial clustering in
public perceptions and encounter reporting pat-
terns. As independent examination of individual
variables was difcult due to the presence of
two interaction effects, we built ‘kill-probabil-
ity’ response surfaces by segmenting the model
by the categorical variables ‘habitation’ and ‘de-
Table 2. Results from a logistic regression model investigating
factors affecting people’s opinions (kill = 1, not kill = 0) on
encounters with King Cobras in the Western Ghats of India (n
= 106, Wald χ2 = 19.28, df = 6, P < 0.0037). The model used
a complementary log-log link function. The model correctly
classied 83.8% of all cases where people wanted to kill Co-
bras (AUC = 0.839).
Parameter df βS.E. P
Intercept 1 0.607 1.670 0.7160
Defensive 1 6.129 2.056 0.0029
Length (cm) 1 -0.008 0.005 0.1672
Length*defensive 1 -0.026 0.007 0.0004
Habitation 1 -1.890 0.535 0.0004
Time 1 1.227 0.983 0.2122
Time*defensive 1 2.613 1.006 0.0094
Table 3. Results from logistic regression investigating factors affecting
King Cobra defensiveness (Wald χ2 = 10.63, df = 1, P < 0.01). The model
correctly classied only 37.7% of all cases where King Cobras displayed
defensive behavior (AUC = 0.656).
Parameter df βS.E. P
Intercept 1 -0.715 0.255 0.005
Breeding season 1 1.757 0.539 0.001
Shankar.indd 96 03-07-2013 05:57:28
June, 2013] Human Hostility to King Cobras 97
fensiveness’ and by varying continuous predic-
tors (length of snake and time of day) across the
range of the respective measurements.
Results indicate that defensive snakes (Fig
3a, 3c) are at a disproportionately higher risk
of being killed than their relatively docile coun-
terparts (Fig 3b, 3d) regardless of whether they
are encountered around habitation or in open ar-
eas. Also, smaller snakes are more likely to be
killed than larger ones regardless of the snake’s
level of defensiveness or the location where the
snake is encountered. Results also indicate that
the probability a snake will be killed is generally
higher during the day than in the night (Fig 3). A
logistic regression model built to explain snake
defensiveness retained only ‘month = March’ as
a signicant explanatory variable but explained
only 37.7% of all cases where the snake was
found defensive (Table 3).
Our intent was to investigate factors that inu-
ence people’s opinions on harming King Cobras
when encountered in and around human habita-
tion. A logistic regression model relating situa-
tional factors with people’s opinions successful-
ly predicted over 80% of all cases where people
wanted the snake killed rather than left alone.
In spite of the apparent good t of the model,
it should be noted that this study is limited to
situations when rescue calls are actually made,
it may well be that a larger number of snakes
are killed (often of the genus Naja) and never
reported back to the conservation team.
While our expectation that defensive snakes
would attract more hostile reactions was sup-
ported by the data we collected, none of the
other hypotheses were supported. Specically,
when controlling for the size of the snake and
the location of encounter, the model conrmed
that defensive snakes were far more likely to be
killed than ones that were relatively docile. In
contrast, for the second hypothesis (larger snakes
would be more at risk) the model suggested the
opposite. We found that smaller snakes were far
more likely to be killed than larger ones across
all levels of defensiveness and location of the
encounter. While this nding is counterintuitive,
we suspect that elevated hostility of people to-
wards smaller King Cobras may be related to
the higher apparent likelihood of successfully
subduing an ‘aggressive’ but smaller-sized and
identiably dangerous snake. We speculate that
it is likely traditional knowledge in the region
that the young of the King Cobra hatch with
enough venom to cause mortality in humans.
Elevated defensiveness in younger King Cobras
has been observed in the eld, and has also been
widely reported for a number of other species
(for example, see Brodie & Russell 1999; Shine
et al. 2002). Our expectation that people would
be more hostile towards snakes found in and
around habitation was also not supported by the
data. We found that snakes encountered in the
open were signicantly more likely to be killed
than left alone. This nding indicates a poten-
tially elevated mortality risk for King Cobras
around forest edges and fragments. Whereas
the model showed a signicant time-of-day ef-
fect, in that people would likely want to have
the snake killed when encountered during day-
time, we suspect this may be an artifact of the
confounding effects of the diurnal nature of the
King Cobra coinciding with general activity
patterns of humans. In combination, discounting
time-of-day as a confounding factor, the model
suggests the possibility of the ‘ease of subduing’
hypothesis to be the leading factor shaping peo-
ple’s perceptions in typical King Cobra encoun-
ters. It is likely that smaller snakes are more
likely to be killed when encountered in areas
where they can be tracked and pursued easily,
especially when they display elevated defensive
The only factor that was a signicant pre-
dictor for snake defensiveness was the binary
variable coding for the month of March. This
may indicate a seasonal pattern to snake defen-
siveness related to breeding and nesting phe-
nology of King Cobras. In general, defensive-
ness in snakes has been related to antipredator
behavior (in this case, likely a response to hu-
mans, also see: Bonnet et al. 2005; Aubret et
al. 2011), seasonal weather patterns (Schieffe-
lin & Dequeiroz 1991; Brodie & Russell 1999;
Mori & Burghardt 2004), reproductive status
(Brodie & Russell 1999; Brown & Shine 2004)
and body condition (Shine et al. 2000; Shine et
al. 2002). Although we currently do not have
data to test these theories specically for the
King Cobra, they are a subject of ongoing re-
search at ARRS.
Shankar.indd 97 03-07-2013 05:57:28
98 Hamadryad [Vol. 36, No. 2
From a conservation standpoint, the nding
that smaller snakes are more likely to be killed
could lead to the possibility of a population bot-
tleneck occurring, especially if increasing habi-
tat degradation and fragmentation drives more
snakes into human habitation. Increased inten-
tional anthropogenic mortality may pose an
additional stressor to King Cobra populations
when compounded with persecution from do-
mesticated mesopredators (such as dogs, pigs)
around forest edges. Further, such direct anthro-
pogenic stressors may aggravate reproductive
losses King Cobras suffer from nest-raiding
mesopredators such as monitor lizards (Varanus
spp.) and mongooses (Herpestes spp.).
From a human welfare and conservation
standpoint, the ndings point to a need for a
slight retuning of outreach focus. Although the
current outreach program has focused on edu-
cating people on the ecological importance of
snakes in general, the focus on protecting small-
er snakes could probably be emphasized. There
is also the possibility of implementing sensitiza-
tion programs and classes to train affected peo-
ple in the safe handling of smaller snakes for
removal from houses. Overall, these ndings
could be utilized to design better conservation
and outreach strategies in India; and perhaps in
other regions with extant King Cobra popula-
We thank Brijesh Kumar, Conservator of For-
ests, N.B. Manjunath, Assistant Conservator of
Forests, N.H. Jaganath and H.S. Suresha, Range
Forest Ofcers for their support and B.K. Sin-
gh, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and
Chief Wildlife Warden (Wildlife) Karnataka
State Forest Department for research permits.
We are thankful to Prashanth, Sharmila Rajase-
garan and all other staff of Agumbe Rainforest
Research Station (ARRS) for their kind cooper-
ation. We are grateful to the public who cooper-
ated with us whenever King Cobras entered into
their properties. Thanks are also due to Nikhil
Whitaker, Gowri Mallapur and all other staff of
Madras Crocodile Bank/Centre for Herpetol-
ogy for their help in literature collection. We
thank Matt Goode and an anonymous reviewer
for comments that greatly improved the manu-
script. AS was supported by a graduate assistant
fellowship from the Department of Forest and
Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wiscon-
sin-Madison, and would like to thank Philip
Townsend for his help and support for this re-
search. We thank the National Geographic So-
ciety (King Cobra Telemetry Project), National
Geographic Television (ARRS) and the Whitley
Fund for Nature (ARRS) for their generous -
nancial support of the Agumbe Rainforest Re-
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Received: 14 November 2012.
Accepted: 1 March 2013.
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