Water buffalo are used for plowing and other forms of labor and as a source of meat, leather and milk. They are found throughout Asia and in places like Turkey, Italy, Australia and Egypt as well. They are mostly found in places where there is a lot of rain or water because they get dehydrated very easily and need water and mud to wallow around in. The water buffalo population in the world is about 172 million, with 96 percent of them in Asia.

Water buffalo are called “carabao” in the Philippines and are regarded as the national animal there. In India their milk is a major source of protein. In Southeast Asia they plow rice fields. One Thai farmer said, "they're the backbone of the nation and have been very important to our way of life.”Described as the “living tractor of the East,” they have been introduced to Europe, Africa, the Americas, Australia, Japan, and Hawaii. There are 74 breeds of domestic water buffalo.

The water buffalo or domestic Asian water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) is a large bovid found on the Indian subcontinent to Vietnam and Peninsular Malaysia, in Sri Lanka, in Luzon Island in the Philippines, and in Borneo. The wild water buffalo (Bubalus arnee) native to Southeast Asia is considered a different species but most likely represents the ancestor of the domestic water buffalo. [Source: Wikipedia +]

There are two types of water buffalo—each considered a subspecies—are based on morphological and behavioural criteria: 1) the river buffalo of the Indian subcontinent and further west to the Balkans and Italy; and 2) the swamp buffalo, found from Assam in the west through Southeast Asia to the Yangtze valley of China in the east. The origins of the domestic water buffalo types are debated, although results of a phylogenetic study indicate that the swamp type may have originated in China and domesticated about 4,000 years ago, while the river type may have originated from India and was domesticated about 5,000 years ago.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica: The river buffalo was present by 2500 BC in India and 1000 BC in Mesopotamia. The breed was selected mainly for its milk, which contains 8 percent butterfat. Breeds include the Murrah with its curled horns, the Surati, and the Jafarabadi. Swamp buffalo more closely resemble wild water buffalo and are used as draft animals in rice paddies throughout Southeast Asia. Breeds range from the 900-kg (2,000-pound) Thai and haizi to the 400-kg wenzhou and carabao. Children ride them to their wallows after their labours and clean their faces and ears. [Source: Encyclopedia Britannica]

Water buffaloes are especially suitable for tilling rice fields, and their milk is richer in fat and protein than that of the dairy cow. Throughout much of Southeast Asia and South Asia water buffalo remain the chief draft animals for cultivation, although tractors have replaced them in many areas, particularly where crops other than rice are grown. Buffalo, predominantly of the swamp type well suited to paddy culture. Able to flourish on coarse fodder and roughage indigestible by other livestock, buffalo are found in all kinds of farming areas. Even in poor areas, small paddy farmers usually have at least one animal. After maturing, buffalo are used as draft animals for five or six years, or until too old to work, when they were slaughtered and sold for meat. [Source: Thailand, Library of Congress] Water buffalo: Scientific Name: Bubalus Bubalis; Type: Mammal; Kingdom: Animalia Phylum: Chordatal Class: Mammalia; Order: Artiodactyla; Family: Bovidae; Genus: Bubalus. Other Names: Arni, Asian Buffalo, Asian Water Buffalo, Asiatic Buffalo, Bufalo Arni, Buffle d'Eau, Buffle de l'Inde, Carabao, Indian Buffalo, Water Buffalo.

Origin of Water Buffaloes

Water buffalo are believed to have been domesticated from wild water buffalo from Southern Asia about 6,000 years ago. The wild Asian buffalo is the ancestor of the domestic water buffalo. The wild Asian buffalo has been domesticated for thousands of years and bred around the world into various, mostly smaller, breeds of less than 500 kilograms (1100 pounds).

True buffaloes are native to Asia and Africa. They are not related to American “buffalo” or bison. Other relatives of water buffalo and cattle in Asia that have been domesticated include the tithan are believed to have been domesticated from gaur from Southeast Asia; and the Bali cattle are believed to have been domesticated from Banteng from Southeast Asia. When these animals were domesticated is unknown.

Water buffaloes were domesticated in India about 5000 years ago, and in China about 4000 years ago. The present day river buffalo is the result of complex domestication processes involving more than one maternal lineage and a significant maternal gene flow from wild populations after the initial domestication events. There are 22 breeds of the river type water buffalo known including Murrah, Nili-Ravi, Surti, Jafarabadi, Anatolian, Mediterranean and Egyptian buffalo. China has a huge variety of buffalo genetic resources, comprising 16 local swamp buffalo breeds in various regions. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Archeological evidence shows that domestic buffalo were being used in Zhejiang Province of China, just south of the mouth of the Yangtze River, 6000 - 7000 years ago (although some think that these may have belonged to a separate species, Bubalus mephistopheles, which has been reported as a wild animal from Pleistocene and early historical sites in Henan Province, China). (Nowak 1999). [Source: Animalinfo.org]

Results of mitochondrial DNA analyses indicate that the two types were domesticated independently. Sequencing of cytochrome b genes of Bubalus species implies that the domestic buffalo originated from at least two populations, and that the river and the swamp types have differentiated at the full species level. The genetic distance between the two types is so large that a divergence time of about 1.7 million years has been suggested. The swamp type was noticed to have the closest relationship with the tamaraw. +

According to the article “Mitochondrial DNA analyses of Indian water buffalo support a distinct genetic origin of river and swamp buffalo by Kumar S1, Nagarajan M, Sandhu JS, Kumar N, Behl V, Nishanth G.: Water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) is broadly classified into river and swamp categories, but it remains disputed whether these two types were independently domesticated, or if they are the result of a single domestication event. In this study, we sequenced the mitochondrial D-loop region and cytochrome b gene of 217 and 80 buffalo respectively from eight breeds/locations in northern, north-western, central and southern India and compared our results with published Mediterranean and swamp buffalo sequences. Using these data, river and swamp buffalo were distinguished into two distinct clades. Based upon the existing knowledge of cytogenetic, ecological and phenotypic parameters, molecular data and present-day distribution of the river and swamp buffalo, we suggest that these two types were domesticated independently, and that classification of the river and swamp buffalo as two related subspecies is more appropriate. [Source: Animal Genetics, June 2007]

Domestication of Water Buffaloes

According to the Central Institute for Research on Buffaloes: “Paleolithic man started gathering food by hunting wild animals, mostly herbivorous, because these species were grazers and browsers due to which it was easier to kill them. This process gradually changed to taming and then domestication. Review of the accessible ancient literature of India and other civilizations from the Vedic period through the Epic, Puranic and Medieval period and modern studies reveal the existence of different kinds of buffaloes in Asian, African and some European countries. However, buffaloes are considered to have originated in Asia and Africa. Americas and Australia were devoid of buffaloes and the Europeans introduced different types of domesticated buffaloes in these continents. [Source: Central Institute for Research on Buffaloes, Indian Council of Agricultural Research ]

Existence of different kinds of Indian (Asiatic) buffaloes has been recorded in all ages. In ancient literature, different forms of buffaloes have been described, ranging from docile riding beast to furious and powerful demons in the mythology of India, China, Indo-China, Assyro-Babylonia and ancient Persia.

Domestication of buffalo started much later than the domestication of horses, donkeys, dogs, cattle, sheep, goats and elephants. Buffalo was considered animal of the demon group and hunted for food upt o Ramayana and Mahabharata epical period. In 'Ram Charit Manas' of Tulsidas, Demon King 'Ravana' went to awake his brother 'Kumbhakarna' from his deep sleep of six months and ordered to arrange supply of thousand pitchers of wine and large number of buffaloes for the feast of Kumbhkarna. During Mahabharata period too, buffalo was listed as wild animal. However, there is mention of rearing boars, buffaloes and elephants for food and other purposes. Buffaloes were well domesticated in the Indian subcontinent by the era of medieval period and they were considered milch animals along with cows, goats and sheep (Kautilya's Arthasastra 381-186 B.C.).

A majority of the modern historians believe that buffaloes were first tamed and then domesticated for working in various agricultural operations before 2500 B.C. in Mesopotamia during the period of Akkadian dynasty and in Indus valley civilization of Indian subcontinent extending to Harappa, Mohanjodaro and some parts of Gujarat, Rajasthan and Haryana. Evidence is available on the seals and sculptures, mostly depicting male buffaloes crowned with typical crescentic and massive horns now prevalent among the wild Indian and Swamp buffalo (Zeuner, 1963). On one of the seals of the Indus valley excavation in Lahore Museum, depiction of a buffalo on feeding trough can be considered a valid evidence of domestication of buffalo during that period. Some multicoloured ceramics of Nal culture of South Baluchistan exhibit buffaloes (Brentzes, 1969) and it is considered contemporary with the Indus valley culture.

Another river valley civilization - the Shang Dynasty (probably during 1766-1123 B.C.), existed along the Yangtze and Yellow rivers in China. Presence of tamed buffaloes has been mentioned in the Shang dynasty during the second millennium B.C. (White, 1974). The importance of buffalo in the life of people during Shang dynasty, as an important animal of socio-economic and cultural significance, is evident from the depiction of buffalo in different forms on the vessels and pillars of Shang period (Brentjes, 1969). Studies of skeletal fossils found during breaking of land in the North-East Thailand for rice cultivation provided evidence of buffalo domestication during the second millennium B.C. around 1600 B.C. (contemprary to Shang dynasty period) in Southeast Asian countries.

African Cape Buffalo

Till the restoration of further information on the domestication of buffaloes, it may be more appropriate to believe that wild buffaloes of the Indus valley (Bubalus arnee) were first tamed and domesticated in the region and then extended to Mesopotamia in the west and up to China in the east. From Mesopotamia, it spread westwards. Indo-gangetic plain is the world's largest fertile plain where the world's first civilization settled for food security. The large area in the Indus valley was covered with marshy grasses, dense forests and grasslands intercepted by many rivers, streams and other water resources which provided suitable environment for human settlement and buffalo domestication in the valley.

Evolution of large number of buffalo breeds by people in the Indian subcontinent clearly suggests the importance given to this animal as a source of food and power, which were sufficient grounds for its domestication. Deep involvement of the people of this region led to evolving several breeds of buffaloes capable of thriving and performing in the prevalent agro-climatic conditions and herbage. Probably milk production formed the basis of selection and breeding which resulted in the evolution of farmers' dairy breeds of riverine buffalo like Murrah, Kundi, Nili Ravi, Jaffarabadi, Mehsana, Surti etc.

Geographical division between Riverine and Swamp buffaloes is assumed to be provided by Patkai, Barail and Arkan-Yoma mountain ranges of Burma. Buffaloes to the west of these mountains are supposed to be the River type and those distributed to the east of these mountains (Far East) are believed to be the Swamp type. All descript and nondescript South Indian buffaloes resemble Swamp buffaloes in external features with low milk yield and small body size. The karyotype of Orissa buffaloes is similar to 48 chromosomes of Swamp buffalo (Bidar et al 1986). Therefore, the demarcation line between distribution of River and Swamp breeds within India (North South) is yet to be established by cytotaxonominists based on karyotypes. All nondescript and descript north Indian buffaloes are Riverine type (Chukrubarthi and Benjamin 1980).

Water Buffalo Characteristics

Water buffalo are larger and more powerful than cattle or oxen. Adults are 2.3 to three meters long with a 60- to 100-centimeter-long tail. A full-grown bull may stand over two meters at the shoulder and weigh 1.5 tons. Wild water buffalo, which are still found in scattered populations in India and Nepal, tend to be bigger than domesticated animals. Members of most breeds weigh less than 500 kilograms. Large r animals consume too much food. It is not rare to find buffaloes that continue to work well at the age of 30, and there are recorded instances of a working life of 40 years.

Asia's water buffaloes

According to National Geographic: “The water buffalo, or Asian buffalo, as it is often called, is the largest member of the Bovini tribe, which includes yak, bison, African buffalo, various species of wild cattle, and others. Standing 5 to 6.2 feet (1.5 to 1.9 meters) tall at the shoulder, wild water buffalo are formidable mammals with sparse gray-black coats. Males carry enormous backward-curving, crescent-shaped horns stretching close to 5 feet (1.5 meters) long with deep ridges on their surface. Females are smaller in size and weight, but they also have horns, although they are proportionately smaller. [Source: National Geographic]

Both wild and domesticated water buffalo are gray to black with off-white “socks” and one or two white chevrons on the neck; domestic forms may have more white. Horns in both sexes curve backward in a crescent. The record horn length is just under 2 metres (6.6 feet)—the longest among cattle or any other bovid, although in domestic forms the horns are shorter or even absent.[Source: Encyclopedia Britannica]

Water buffalo have the world's longest horns (they have one horn while most horned animals have two). The horn span of a water buffalo is often more than two meters. According to the Guinness Book of Records, one animal shot in 1955 had horns measuring 13 feet and 11 inches (4.24 meters) from tip to tip. The horns have a wrinkled surface and may curl upwardss and inwards or point straight out sideways.

Water buffalo have a hairless hide. Their body is grey or black with pale lower legs. Their head is dominated by their horns. Their face is long and barrow, with small ears. Their large splayed feet and flexible fetlock joints are suited to the wet, marshy ground and rice fields in which they spend much of their time.

Male water buffaloes have very distinctive, large curved horns on the tops of their heads. The male water buffalo is also about a third large than the female water buffalo and the male water buffalo is therefore more commonly used as agricultural aid.

Size: 2-3 meters (6.6-9.8 feet); Weight: 400-900 kilograms (880-2,000 pounds); Top Speed: 48 kilometers per hour) (30mph); Life Span: 15-25 years, Longevity of the domesticated water buffalo can be 40 years, but the wild form is not as long-lived, even in captivity; Colour: Brown, Tan, Grey; Special Features: Large head and body: Head and body size: 2.4 to 2.7 meters (8 to 9 feet); Tail: 60 to 100 centimeters (2 to 3.3 feet). Thailand's wild Asian buffalo is the largest water buffalo in the world.

The skin of river buffaloes is black, but some specimens may have dark slate-coloured skin. Swamp buffaloes have a grey skin at birth but become slate blue later. Albinoids are present in some populations. River buffaloes have comparatively longer faces, smaller girth and bigger limbs than swamp buffaloes. The dorsal ridge extends further back and tapers off more gradually. Their horns grow downward and backward, then curve upward in a spiral. Swamp buffaloes are heavy-bodied and stockily built, the body is short and the belly large. The forehead is flat, the eyes prominent, the face short and the muzzle wide. The neck is comparatively long, the withers and croup are prominent. A dorsal ridge extends backward and ends abruptly just before the end of the chest. Their horns grow outward, and curve in a semicircle, but always remain more or less on the plane of the forehead. The tail is short, reaching only to the hocks. Height at withers is 129–133 cm (51–52 in) for males, and 120–127 cm (47–50 in) for females. They range in weight from 300–550 kg (660–1,210 lb), but weights of over 1,000 kg (2,200 lb) have also been observed. Tedong bonga is a black pied buffalo featuring a unique black and white colouration that is favoured by the Toraja of Sulawesi. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The swamp buffalo has 48 chromosomes; the river buffalo has 50 chromosomes. The two types do not readily interbreed, but fertile offspring can occur. Buffalo-cattle hybrids have not been observed to occur, and the embryos of such hybrids do not reach maturity in laboratory experiments. +

Water Buffalo Eating Habits

The water buffalo is herbivorous animal and the water buffalo therefore has a purely vegetarian diet. Water buffalo munch on aquatic plants when they are in water but water buffalo seem to prefer to leave the water to find grassland where the water buffalo can graze on grasses, leaves and herbs. Wild water buffalo graze in the mornings and evenings and occasionally at night, on lush grass and leafy aquatic vegetation.

Water buffaloes thrive on many aquatic plants and during floods, will graze submerged, raising their heads above the water and carrying quantities of edible plants. They eat reeds (quassab), a giant reed (birdi), a kind of bulrush (kaulan), water hyacinth and marsh grasses. Some of these plants are of great value to local peoples. Others, such as water hyacinth, are a major problem in some tropical valleys, and water buffaloes may help to keep waterways clear. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Green fodders are used widely for intensive milk production and for fattening. Many fodder crops are conserved as hay, chaffed or pulped. Fodders include alfalfa and lucernes, berseem and bancheri, the leaves, stems or trimmings of banana, cassava, fodder beet, halfa, ipil-ipil and kenaf, maize, oats, pandarus, peanut, sorghum, soybean, sugarcane, bagasse and turnips. Citrus pulp and pineapple wastes have been fed safely to buffaloes. In Egypt, whole sun-dried dates are fed to milk-buffaloes up to 25 percent of the standard feed mixture. +

Water buffalo, deer, cattle, sheep, goats, yaks, antelopes, giraffes, and their relatives are ruminants—cud-chewing mammals that have a distinctive digestive system designed to obtain nutrients from large amounts of nutrient-poor grass. Ruminants evolved about 20 million years ago in North America and migrated from there to Europe and Asia and to a lesser extent South America, where they never became widespread.

The rumen of the water buffalo has important differences from that of other ruminants. It contains a larger population of bacteria, particularly the cellulolytic bacteria, lower protozoa and higher fungi zoospores. In addition, higher rumen ammonia nitrogen (NH4-N) and higher pH have been found as compared to those in cattle. In addition, water buffalo have no teeth on their upper jaw.+

Wallowing Water Buffalo

Water buffalo like hanging out in water and wallowing the mud. They are typically put to work in the morning and taken to a pond, river or mud hole in the afternoon heat to wallow in the mud or water and often relax in a position in which they are nearly completely submerged with only their nostrils showing. In addition to cooling the animal, wallowing helps remove skin parasites and keep away bitting flies and other pests.

According to National Geographic: Water buffalo spend much of their day submerged in the muddy waters of Asia’s tropical and subtropical forests. Their wide-splayed hoofed feet prevent them from sinking too deeply in the mud and allow them to move about in wetlands and swamps. These marshes provide good cover and rich aquatic plants to forage on, although water buffalo actually prefer to feed in grasslands on grass and herbs. [Source: National Geographic]

River buffaloes prefer deep water. Swamp buffaloes prefer to wallow in mudholes which they make with their horns. During wallowing, they acquire a thick coating of mud.[1] Both are well adapted to a hot and humid climate with temperatures ranging from 0 degrees C (32 degrees F) in the winter to 30 degrees C (86 degrees F) and greater in the summer. Water availability is important in hot climates since they need wallows, rivers or splashing water to assist in thermoregulation. Some breeds are adapted to saline seaside shores and saline sandy terrain. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Water Buffalo Reproduction and Social Behavior

Water buffalo females generally produce a single offspring after a gestation of 10 to 11 months. Female water buffalo produce one water buffalo calf every couple of years. Males are called bulls and have bigger, square shaped necks. Females are called buffalo cows and have rounder necks. If left to their own devices buffalo calves and cows live in groups. A female calf may remain with its mother for life. Buffaloes are active mainly at night and at dusk, spending the rest of the day wallowing in mud or resting in woodlands.

Female wild water buffalo normally produce calves every other year, after a gestation of 9 to 11 months. Young bulls typically remain with maternal herds, which consist of around 30 buffalo, for three years after birth. They then go on to form small all-male herds. A stable clan of females and calves is led by a dominant matriarch as is the case with elephants. Males can form bachelor groups of about 10. Young males spar to assert their dominance but avoid serious fighting, and mix withe female at mating time.

The baby water buffalo stays with its mother and is dependant on her for it's first couple of years. After about three years, male water buffaloes leave the mother water buffalo to join all male water buffalo groups. The female water buffalo will often remain in the same water buffalo herd as it's mother.

Swamp buffaloes generally become reproductive at an older age than river breeds. Young males in Egypt, India and Pakistan are first mated at about 3–3.5 years of age but in Italy they may be used as early as 2 years of age. Successful mating behaviour may continue until the animal is 12 years or even older. A good river male can make pregnant 100 females a year. There is a strong seasonal influence on mating. Heat stress reduces libido. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Although buffaloes are polyoestrus, their reproductive efficiency shows wide variation throughout the year. Buffalo cows exhibit a distinct seasonal change in displaying oestrus, conception rate and calving rate. The age at first oestrus of heifers varies between breeds from 13–33 months but mating at the first oestrus is often infertile and usually deferred until they are 3 years old. Gestation lasts from 281–334 days, but most reports give a range of between 300 and 320 days. Swamp buffaloes carry their calves for one or two weeks longer than river buffaloes. +

Wild Water Buffalo

Wild water buffalo are endangered and live only in a small number of protected areas stretching across India, Nepal, and Bhutan, and a wildlife reserve in Thailand. And populations are likely to diminish as they are interbred with domesticated water buffalo. [Source: National Geographic]

The wild Asian buffalo originally ranged from eastern Nepal and India, east to Vietnam, and south to Malaysia. By 1963, it had been substantially reduced numerically and eliminated from the greater part of its former range. At that time it was thought to be restricted to three zones: the Brahmaputra Valley in Assam, India, the lower reaches of the Godavari River at the confluence of the borders of the states of Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh in India, and the Saptkosi River, Nepal, close to the border with India. As of 1990, remnant populations were thought to occur in Assam and Orissa in India, in Nepal, and in two sanctuaries in Thailand. [Source: Animalinfo.org]

Thailand's wild Asian buffalo is the largest water buffalo in the world. Wild buffalo have been observed changing tigers and Asian elephants that have backed off.In Africa similar behavior has been observed with Cape buffalo and lions and African elephants.

Feral Water Buffaloes in Australia

There are around 150,000 feral water buffalo in Australia. They create wallows in the freshwater marshes of northern Australia. Water buffaloes were introduced to the Northern Territory of Australia from Indonesia in the 1820s and 1830s. They were used in the British settlements to mainly pull carts. When the outposts were abandoned, the buffalo escaped or were set free. They thrived in the wild, especially along the coastal plains that turn into swamps in the wet season.

These days you'll find Water Buffalo in the freshwater floodplains of the Top End and along creek lines through Arnhem Land. During the 1980s, the government tried to control the population of feral Water Buffalo through a Brucellosis and tuberculosis eradication campaign. But they've proved a hardy breed and they've come back stronger than before. Aboriginal people hunt buffaloes in Arnhem land and they even feature in their stories and culture.

Between 1824 and 1849, water buffaloes were introduced into the Northern Territory from Timor, Kisar and probably other islands in the Indonesian archipelago. In 1886, a few milking types were brought from India to Darwin. They have been the main grazing animals on the sub-coastal plains and river basins between Darwin and Arnhem Land since the 1880s. In the early 1960s, an estimated population of 150,000 to 200,000 buffaloes were living in the plains and nearby areas. Buffaloes were exported live to Indonesia until 2011, at a rate of about 3000 for year. After the live export ban that year, the exports dropped to zero, and had not resumed as of June 2013. [Source: Wikipedia +]

They became feral and are causing significant environmental damage. Buffalo are also found in the Top End. As a result, they were hunted in the Top End from 1885 until 1980. The commencement of the Brucellosis and Tuberculosis Campaign (BTEC) resulted in a huge culling program to reduce buffalo herds to a fraction of the numbers that were reached in the 1980s. The BTEC was finished when the Northern Territory was declared free of the disease in 1997. Numbers dropped dramatically as a result of the campaign, but have since recovered to an estimated 150,000 animals across northern Australia in 2008. +

During the 1950s, buffalo were hunted for their skins and meat, which was exported and used in the local trade. In the late 1970s, live exports were made to Cuba and continued later into other countries. Buffalo are now crossed with riverine buffalo in artificial breeding (AI) programs, and may be found in many areas of Australia. Some of these crossbreds are used for milk production. Melville Island is a popular hunting location, where a steady population of up to 4,000 individuals exist. Safari outfits are run out of Darwin to Melville Island and other locations in the Top End, often with the use of bush pilots. The horns, which can measure up to a record of 3.1 metres tip-to-tip, are prized hunting trophies. +

The buffalo have developed a different appearance from the Indonesian buffalo from which they descend.[citation needed] They live mainly in freshwater marshes and billabongs, and their territory range can be quite expansive during the wet season. Their only natural predators in Australia are large adult saltwater crocodiles, with whom they share the billabongs, and dingoes, which have been known to prey on buffalo calves and occasionally adult buffaloes when the dingoes are in large packs.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2022

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