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Tsakane is a Ranger in the Black Mambas

Both species of rhinoceros in Africa are endangered, in large part due to the value of rhino horn on the black market. In the western part of South Africa’s Greater Kruger National Park, a group is working to keep these animals safe in spite of the bounties on their horns. The Black Mambas are a woman-only group of rangers that patrol the wildlife reserve to protect against poaching. 

Tsakane Nxumalo, a ranger with the Black Mambas, joins host Jay Ruderman to talk about their rigorous training process, the role of education in conservation work, and what role her gender plays in her work.

Listen to the latest episode of All About Change as Tsakane Nxumalo, a ranger with the Black Mamas, joins host Jay Ruderman to talk about their rigorous training process, the role of education in conversation work, and what role her gender plays in her work

To learn more about The Black Mambas, click here.

TRANSCRIPTION:

Tsakane Nxumalo:

The Black Mambas is the first to change that perspective in the communities, in the societies, in the minds of the men that have been doing this job for that long, that also women can be in this industry and they can do their job.

Jay Ruderman:

Hi, I am Jay Ruderman and welcome to All About Change, a podcast showcasing individuals who leverage the hardships that have been thrown at them to better other people’s lives.

Montage:

I say put mental health first because if you don’t…

Montage:

This generation of America has already had enough.

Montage:

I stand before you, not as an expert, but as a concerned citizen.

Jay Ruderman:

On the western side of the Greater Kruger National Park sits the elephant’s West Nature Reserve. It’s the home of what’s known as the Big Five, the African elephant, lion, leopard, Cape buffalo, and the rhino. It’s also home to a group dedicated to keeping those animals safe. They’re known as the Black Mambas. One thing that sets the mambas apart, there are force formed entirely of women.

Tsakane Nxumalo:

For us, it’s every animal, whether it’s a rabbit, whether it’s an elephant, big or small, we are protecting all the animals. Gender doesn’t define what we can do. Our gender is just a gender. I’m just a female. A person is a male. But then when it comes to the job, it depends on how determined I am to do the job. Then I can get it done.

Jay Ruderman:

That’s Tsakane Nxumalo, a ranger with the Black Mambas. The group’s primary goal is to keep rhinos safe from poachers, many of whom are the Ranger’s neighbors. While that could make dynamics tense between the two groups, Tsakane has an incredible depth of empathy for the situation the poachers are in.

Tsakane Nxumalo:

Value the lives of the animals that we’re protecting, that is how we value the lives of the poachers that are coming in here. Some are there because they just want that little meat to feed their families. Some are there because they want that meat to sell so they can take their children to schools. If I can come to you, you are not working. You need the money, and I tell you that, “Okay, go into a reserve, get me a rhino horn and I’ll give you 10,000.” Some people have never touched 10,000, so they’ll just go because they need the money.

Jay Ruderman:

That dedication to the communities they’re part of extends past the Rangers patrols. The Black Mambas also run an education initiative to bring the love of wildlife into local classrooms.

Tsakane Nxumalo:

For me, it’s a long-term investment because they’re going to go home and tell their fathers or their uncles who are poachers. “People should stop poaching because the animals are going instinct and when I grow up, I want to be a ranger.” I think that gives parents the platform to start sitting down and thinking that, “Okay, if I kill all the animals, where’s my child going to work?”

Jay Ruderman:

Underlying all their work is a commitment to the wildlife and ecosystems that have been there longer than we have. So Tsakane, welcome to All About Change. It’s my honor to have you as a guest today and thank you for being with us.

Tsakane Nxumalo:

Thank you for having me.

Jay Ruderman:

So for those listeners who are not familiar with your organization or hearing about it for the first time, in your words, can you tell us who the Black Mambas are?

Tsakane Nxumalo:

Okay, so the Black Mambas is an organization like the first organization, which is an all female, that was started in 2013, which is really working on uplifting women in the rural communities. Like women, we are not working and mostly women because we’ve grown in a society where it was all about men in this industry. Women couldn’t do this job. Women were not even seen anyway doing this job. But then the Black Mambas is the first to change that perspective in the communities, in the societies, in the minds of the men that have been doing this job for that long that also women can be in this industry and they can do their job.

Jay Ruderman:

What is the significance of an all-women force?

Tsakane Nxumalo:

For me, I think that with women, we do everything wholeheartedly. Whatever that we put our mind to, we make sure that we get it done and we have all those qualities that we can nurture from the children that we have from home. We know how to be mothers to those children, and then it goes to like every child in the community, it goes to the animals that we are busy taking care of and it goes to every person in the community because when we go back home, we don’t stay with the information that we have. We make sure that if it’s a child, I teach that child. I make sure that the child, when they’re with their friends, they talk about it. If I’m talking to an elder, we do talk about preserving nature. We do talk about taking care of natural resources, taking care of the animals. So I think with women we are just gifted in that.

Jay Ruderman:

And Tsakane you mentioned that traditionally the field of conservation is a male-dominated field and that the Black Mambas are challenging gender stereotypes. Have you experienced any pushback because you are a group of all women?

Tsakane Nxumalo:

We have. With the group that I came after, they got remarks such as, “What are those women thinking?” Because we trained at Protrack, which is okay before us, it had never trained women ever. So we are the first group of women trained by men, trained by Protrack, which is a training facility that men are running away from. So women we’re still going there, whereas men were running away from that place, but we’re still going there. And even now from people who are just, I can say narrow-minded because it’s not really about gender, our gender doesn’t define what we can do. Our gender is just a gender. I’m just a female. A person is a male. But then when it comes to the job, it depends on how determined I am to do the job then I can get it done.

Jay Ruderman:

So tell me about the training that you receive before you go into the park. What type of education do you go through in order to do this job?

Tsakane Nxumalo:

Our job requires us to be physically fit. That is the first thing first. We have to be physically fit. And the training that we went to, if I had to go again or if I had to save somebody, I’d never go there again. We did a semi military training where we were taught how to track. We’re taught how to identify tracks of animals, how to report the tracks of animals, how to report tracks of human beings, how to back track if we find tracks of human beings inside the reserve. We’re also taught how to read the bush because immediately you are inside the bush. You have to know, since we are not using any firearms, you have to know if I find an elephant, what do I have to do? Do you run? Because there’s no running in the bush.

So they were teaching all that and then they were also making sure that we’re physically fit, would run for 12 kilometers a day with just a little bottle of water, would exercise so bad. But then it was good because it took the we can’t from our mindset. It took the doubts that we came with from the society, the doubts that people were talking that we are not going to make it. We will run away. Even men ran away from that training. But then it took away those thoughts and we had that mindset of we can do it. If others that were members before us did this training and succeeded, then that means that we can do it also.

Jay Ruderman:

Tell me, what is an average day look like? What do you do day to day?

Tsakane Nxumalo:

We kind of do different things depending on where we are needed. But then the fence line is our top priority because it’s where we have to put our boots on the ground. And most of the time it’s where the poachers are coming in from. So we are making sure that every time they try coming in, they will see that okay, this place is being looked after. The women are already here. So we put our boot in the fence line, which is the first line of detection for us. And some days we do nest sweeping. We go into the bushes because the poachers, whether it’s bush meat, whether it’s the other poachers, they go into the bush, they put nests, and most of our animals are getting killed by those nests because most of them are there to kill. They’re not just there to just trap the animal and they come take the animal away.

We just find some animals killed. And some of the days we do roadblocks. We do stay at the gate making sure that most of the time we have contractors that are working inside the reserve that we’re working in. So we are making sure that they don’t come in with anything that should not be inside the reserve. And also making sure that when they go out, they’re going with nothing that belongs to the reserve. So in the morning we walk the fence line checking if the fence is not cut, no animals are going under the fence, making sure that there are no tracks coming in or going out. And then at night we are going in vehicle with our spotlights, making sure that we shining. Also store checking the fence line.

Jay Ruderman:

And which animals are you trying to protect? I know that there’s a focus on rhinos. Are you trying to protect other animals in the park?

Tsakane Nxumalo:

I think for us it’s all the animals. We just have that priority of saying the rhino is the most endangered. We have pangolins, we have elephants, which they’re targeting the tusk or the ivory. So depending on what the people that are coming to poach are looking for, because we also have bush meat poachers. So they can’t be coming for an elephant. It’s too big for them if they’re just going to feed their family. So they’ll be coming for also the small antelopes. So for us, it’s every animal, whether it’s a rabbit, whether it’s an elephant, big or small, we are protecting all the animals.

Jay Ruderman:

I see. Tell me about a poacher. What is a poacher doing in the park? What is their target?

Tsakane Nxumalo:

Some are there because after we just came out from the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of people lost their jobs and some are there because they just want that little meat to feed their families. Some are there because they want that meat to sell so they can take their children to schools, but then some are just there because they’re greedy. If I can come to you, you’re not working, you need the money. And I tell you that, “Okay, go into a reserve, get me a rhino horn and I’ll you 10,000.” Some people have never touched 10,000, so they’ll just go because they need the money. So I think the motive behind it for every poacher is different. Whoever is being sent to get the rhino horn is not really the person who’s going to sell the rhino horn. They’re just being the scapegoat for whatever happens in the reserve, I’ll just get another person to replace that person so that we can get what we want.

Jay Ruderman:

So have you on your patrols, have you seen animals caught in snares?

Tsakane Nxumalo:

I’ve seen one, but then we found it dead. I’ve seen a buffalo that was trapped in a snare. Luckily it was able to pull the snare in the tree that it was tied in and it was able to move from where it was trapped to a different place. So we’re able to just track it down by the branches of the trees that were being dragged on the ground and how the legs were moving because we could see from how the legs were moving that one leg is injured and then the other legs are still fine. So we found it dead, unfortunately.

Jay Ruderman:

So Tsakane, tell us your personal story. How did you grow up and what made you decide to become a member of the Black Mambas?

Tsakane Nxumalo:

I come from a very big family in a village called Hlamalani in Bushbuckridge, which is in Mpumalanga. I grew up with my dad since he separated with my mother. And my mother was in Limpopo, in Phalaborwa. I’ve always had a desire to serve. For me it was not really about nature, I just wanted to find myself somewhere where I’ll be serving. I became a Black Mamba in 2019. I heard about it and I was not doing anything. It was after I was done with my diploma in public management and then I got the opportunity. I heard about it like, “Okay, there are ladies who are working inside a reserve called the Black Mambas. They’re doing a very good job.” So for me it was that thing that, I want to be part of that change, the change that they’re making out there, the role models they are in the community to children and to other women that are there in the community.

And I applied and when I got to the interview, I didn’t even know what to say the Black Mambas are. I remember I was asked, “Do you know anything about the Black Mambas?” And I told them that, “Yeah, I know a Black Mamba, a Black Mamba is a very dangerous snake.” That is all I knew. But with being here, I’ve learned a lot from the training, from working with the people that were here before and from everybody else. I’ve learned a lot and I’m still learning.

Jay Ruderman:

How did you first hear about the group?

Tsakane Nxumalo:

They took it to the community. So our reserve is near the community of Phalaborwa. So every time they want people, they take the post to the community in a way of trying to uplift from that community or from that rural area. So when they took the post to Phalaborwa, luckily I had visited my mom and then I heard about the post, I was doing nothing. So I just had to give it a try and here I am.

Jay Ruderman:

So with this difficult job, what motivates you to keep going?

Tsakane Nxumalo:

I’ve never loved failing at anything I do, irregardless of if it’s something that I’m sure that I’m going to do and do it well or if it’s something that I’m just trying out. But also I have a very supportive family, super, super supportive. So it’s more of the thing that they didn’t believe that I would do it. But then at the end I managed to change how they looked at everything because TV shows a whole different scenario from real life and they would just see a lion on TV are taking a person, but then it’s not really that case. So I managed to change how they looked at it and now they’re very supportive. So I have that thing in me that before letting myself down, I don’t want to let them down.

Jay Ruderman:

That’s wonderful. Let’s talk about going into the park. You’re going into the park on foot, in pairs. You do not have a weapon with you. There are poachers in the park that do have weapons and you’re facing some of the strongest animals in the world, elephants, lions, buffalo, leopards. How do you feel safe walking into a park with all of those threats all around you?

Tsakane Nxumalo:

For me, being inside the park, I’ve learned to live my quaint in my room. The minute I go into the park, I know that all the animals are there. It’s more of remembering what to do when you are inside the bush because it starts with listening, like using our senses. If I go inside the bush, I don’t listen to anything. I don’t check the animal tracks. You can just pass tracks and then a lion just passed there. Or you can just be walking and you’re not listening and a lion is roaring. And if you can hear it in time or detect it in time, you’d be able to get saved or turn back or do something. But then if you’re not using all those senses, like if you’re not using the education that you were taught at training, the teaching that you were taught, how to read the bush, how to read the animal’s behavior, then it becomes hard.

And with poachers, I’ve never had an encounter, but every track that we find, we make sure we report. Even if it’s a boot as long as it doesn’t look like my boot, then it’s not supposed to be there. I report. And the team that is supporting when we report every time is always, always, always, always on point because every time we report, they’re there. So it makes it very simple that even if I come across something, they’ll be here in a minute.

Jay Ruderman:

And what is the reason that you do not carry a weapon?

Tsakane Nxumalo:

For us, the reason why we don’t carry weapons is that as much as we value the lives of the animals that we’re protecting, that is how we value the lives of the poachers that are coming in here. And with us also, the reserve is much nearer to the village that we are coming from. So it’s very much possible that the poacher that is coming into the reserve is my neighbor or it’s someone that I know. And we are avoiding that thing of going back to a very angry revengeful community of kids that want to revenge rangers who have killed their father was maybe trying to feed them or maybe trying to take them to school.

Jay Ruderman:

Why is it better that you patrol without guns than having a weapon?

Tsakane Nxumalo:

I think it goes back to us remembering everything that we were taught. Because if we were to check the statistics, I think a lot of rangers are getting killed out there with guns a lot because every time I come across a situation, I’m not going to stand and think or read the bush or check the animal’s behavior because yes, I’m going to find an elephant that is angry already and that doesn’t mean that I have to shoot it. Maybe if I see it from a distance, I just turn back and just leave it there. So it goes back to us having to remember that, okay, if an elephant is doing this and that I have to do this or I just have to go back, if I see tracks of a lion, I report and I have to go back. That decreases the number of animals that were shot by rangers because maybe they were in close range or the animals were trying to attack or anything.

So it goes back to us remembering, it’s more of us learning every day. Because if you learn today and then you don’t practice what you have learned in time, you forget. With us, every time we are refreshing what we have learned in training, we are refreshing what from experience we’ve come across and had upon that situation or had to do something. So we are remembering and refreshing the teachings that we were taught that if an animal is doing this, you do that. If you see a track of a human being, you report fast and then backup will be there. They don’t have to be any shootings because obviously the backup does have firearms, so they know what to do. They were trained for that. But for us, we have to remember and then just report everything.

Jay Ruderman:

I see. Have you ever while you’re on patrol, I know you say you’ve never encountered a poacher, but have you encountered the big five while you were in the park?

Tsakane Nxumalo:

Countlessly. So I remember this one time we came across lions. I couldn’t even count how many lions there were and we were just two. So what happened is we walked the fence twice, we go the other way and come back. And when we passed, we didn’t see anything. So the reserve is near the R40, which is a national road, which sometimes gets very busy, so you can get disrupted easily. But then we do look and listen and everything and observe. But that day we came across two buffalos and they were on the way that we had to pass on and we reported immediately that, there are two buffalos, we are not sure if we are going to make it past them. And they told us to go back and fetch the car.

We turned back and as we were turning back, when we got to where the lions were, I don’t know, something told me to look on my right-hand side. And when I looked, they were just sitting there looking at us, a lot of lion, a lot, in a ditch somewhere. And I told the one that I was with, I just held her hand and said, “Stop. Let’s go back a bit.” And then we went back. I told her like, “Okay, don’t be alarmed. Look on my right-hand side.”

Jay Ruderman:

So let me just understand, the fence is electrified.

Tsakane Nxumalo:

Yes.

Jay Ruderman:

And you have a pride of lions. There’s a large group of lions and you see some buffalo which are also dangerous.

Tsakane Nxumalo:

Yes.

Jay Ruderman:

Were you fearful that you could be attacked either by the lions or the buffalo?

Tsakane Nxumalo:

At the time I wasn’t. What’s funny is that we are there to protect those animals, but then they’re also attacking us who are protecting them. For me, it was more of an adventure. The way they were so chilled. I got that confirmation that, okay, they are not even going to come here. They looked like they just ate. So they were full.

Jay Ruderman:

I see.

Tsakane Nxumalo:

Yes.

Jay Ruderman:

I see. Let’s talk about community engagement. You work closely with the communities that are adjacent to protected areas and you work to build trust and educate them about the importance of protecting the wildlife. How does that work? How do you work with the communities and do you experience any pushback from the communities?

Tsakane Nxumalo:

We have a program called the Bush Babies Environmental Education, which is working with 11 schools in Phalaborwa. We have seven environmental monitors or teachers that are going to the schools every day teaching about environmental education. And we also have Bush Grannies, which are the grannies in the communities, they also have a lot of information about what has been happening long ago before we even knew about all this. So they’re also helping with teaching the kids what they know, teaching us also what they know. And we have camps for the kids and the grannies. And sometimes we do take them to the Kruger National Park because it gets really hard if we have to teach the kids how to protect animals they have never seen. Or if we have to teach the grannies how they have to protect a rhino, if they’ve never seen one, they just know a cow and a goat because it’s domestic animals.

Jay Ruderman:

So you’re telling me that people who live close to the fence, close to the border of the parks, many of them have never seen the wildlife in the parks. Many of the children or the adults have never been in the parks or seen this wildlife.

Tsakane Nxumalo:

For them, they just know that this is a park, they’ve never went there. So it’s very much important that they are taken into the park so they can see all those animals. But then for most them, for of their kids, most of their parents don’t have the money to take their kids because it’s transport. Sometimes they have to pay to go into the Kruger National Park.

Jay Ruderman:

So now that you’ve had a chance through your work to bring children into the parks to educate, do they then feel like they’ve become stakeholders in the conservation efforts?

Tsakane Nxumalo:

I think they do. They feel involved in what we are doing. They feel included.

Jay Ruderman:

And do you see a difference between let’s say 2013 and now in terms of rhino poaching and the difference that since the Black Mambas have been in existence, do you see a difference in what’s happening in terms of poaching?

Tsakane Nxumalo:

I can say I see a very huge difference because when we were starting out in 2013, a day would come back with 70 to 80 snares a day. But then now it has gone back to maybe two or three and we were able to remove 1,471 snares.

Jay Ruderman:

So when you’re on patrol, I understand a big part of your job is to take the snares and to remove them and take them out of the park.

Tsakane Nxumalo:

Yes.

Jay Ruderman:

In terms of the economics, and you talked about people being paid $10,000 for a rhino horn or providing bush meat to their family so they can eat. There’s a lot of money at stake. How do you think the Black Mambas have been able to combat this problem in terms of economics and in terms of helping that dynamic?

Tsakane Nxumalo:

So when the pandemic started, we had a program, a food parcel program, where we’re going into the community. We are asking for donations through our donors so we can get the food parcels to take to the people in the community. Mostly people that are not working and mostly people that have lost their jobs during the pandemic. So I think that has lessened the number. It has decreased because they don’t have to go out into the reserve trying to feed their families since they’re getting the food parcels.

Jay Ruderman:

Tsakane, can you tell us a story of maybe your favorite moment on the job?

Tsakane Nxumalo:

I think having to go back to the community and teaching the kids. One thing about teaching the kids is that they never forget. It’s always there. Even if they’re playing, they play with what you taught them. For me it’s a long-term investment because they’re going to go home and tell their fathers or their uncles who are poachers also that, “Today soldiers came to our school,” because we are called soldiers because of our uniform. “And yes, when I grow up one day I want to be like her. People should stop poaching because the animals are going instinct and when I grow up, I want to be a ranger.” I think that gives parents the platform to start sitting down and thinking that, “Okay, if I kill all the animals, where’s my child going to work?” So that is one phenomenal moment. I can say I’ll do it every day if I had to. I would teach the kids every day. I would be talking to the kids every day about preserving nature. I would teach the kids every day about if you cut a tree, you plant another one because those are natural resources.

Jay Ruderman:

So this is sort of a larger macro question, but what are your thoughts on the global fight against wildlife trafficking and what are your hopes for the future of rhinos and other threatened wildlife in Africa and abroad?

Tsakane Nxumalo:

I’d really, really, really plead with people to really stop the poaching because as much as I am protecting the rhino, I don’t want tomorrow or next year or after five years to have a child and tell the child stories of animals they can’t see because the animal is gone instinct. So I want to show my grandchildren of that animal that I once protected, that animal that once chased me, although I was there because of it and there for the good of protecting it.

Jay Ruderman:

So do you see more wildlife now when you’re in the park than you did maybe a few years ago?

Tsakane Nxumalo:

Yes. Now I see a lot more of wildlife. When we are at work, it has become our little safari because when we are moving around, we come across elephants, we come across lions, we come across rhinos. So I see a lot because while I was still at home, it was not every day that I’ll just wake up and decide to go into the Kruger National Park to see the animals. It’ll be maybe when I was in primary school, it’ll be maybe once or twice a year on a school trip. And then you’d hear them screaming, “Oh, lion.” And then that time the lion has gone already. You can’t even see it.

Jay Ruderman:

And what do you think that you’re capable right now in your life of doing that you could not have done before you became a Black Mamba?

Tsakane Nxumalo:

I’d never go into a reserve unarmed, that is one, and I’d never just walk there knowing very well that I might come across one of the big fives. That is one thing I’d never do. But then now I do it and I’m super comfortable when I’m inside the bush because I know that is the work I chose. I know that is something that I’m doing and I’m passionate about. So nobody has to wake up in the morning, motivate me, like, “Okay, get up and go to work.” I wake up for myself, I wake up knowing that I’m going to make a change out there. So yes, I’m going.

Jay Ruderman:

I see. And what is the impact of what you do or the fact that the Black Mambas exist at all? What’s the impact on the lives of women and girls in the communities that you come from?

Tsakane Nxumalo:

I think we’ve given them their voice back mostly with this industry and other industries that were male dominant. We’ve given them a voice back. We’ve given them that desire of saying that if they can do it, that means we can do it also. And we’ve given children a path to see, because while we were growing up, we didn’t know that there are a lot of opportunities in tourism, which includes this one that we are doing. But now we know that and we are taking the word back home to tell them that even if you don’t want to be a Black Mamba, then you can be a guide, you can be something in tourism, in conservation, you can be someone.

Jay Ruderman:

So where do you see the conservation efforts, let’s say five years from now? You think things will be better?

Tsakane Nxumalo:

Yes, I think things will be very much better because we, as rangers and everybody in conservation, we are building that awareness and people are getting more and more aware, more and more involved in wanting to save the nature and wanting to protect the environment. So in five years time, I think people will be there working together to combat poaching.

Jay Ruderman:

And what changes do you hope to see maybe on an international level in terms of the conservation effort?

Tsakane Nxumalo:

Well, first of all, I can say that I’m actually hoping and waiting to see more female rangers, whether they are armed or unarmed, but then more female rangers. That is one thing that I can say I’m hoping that I can see or they can be a change like that women are represented in this area.

Jay Ruderman:

That’s beautiful. If our listeners want to support the work of the Black Mambas or to be involved in the cause of rhino conservation, what do you suggest they do?

Tsakane Nxumalo:

They can follow our pages on Instagram, on Facebook, on the Black Mambas APU, or they can follow Transfrontier Africa.

Jay Ruderman:

So Tsakane, thank you so much. First of all, I want to thank you for all the hard work that you do, for your motivation, and for trying to make our world a better place and conserve the animals that are so beautiful and part of our world, so they’re around for generations to come. So thank you so much. It’s been such a pleasure talking to you. I appreciate your time and thank you for being my guest on All About Change.

Tsakane Nxumalo:

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Jay Ruderman:

The Black Mambas are as innovative as they are impressive. Slowing the rate of poaching at Kruger is a tall order, but when the women of the Mambas are equipped to handle. That’s it for today’s episode. Join us two weeks from today for my talk with Academy Award-winning actor and tireless advocate for the deaf community, Troy Kotsur. Today’s episode was produced by Rebecca Chaisson with story editing by Yochai Maital and Mijon Zulu. To check out more episodes or to learn more about the show, you can visit our website allaboutchangepodcast.com. If you like our show, spread the word, tell a friend or family member, or leave us a review on your favorite podcasting app. We’d really appreciate it. All About Change is produced by the Ruderman Family Foundation in partnership with Pod People. That’s all for now. I’m Jay Ruderman and we’ll see you next time on All About Change.

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