UK’s top 50 conservation heroes

The May 2015 issue of the magazine featured the first ever BBC Wildlife Power List. We reveal Britain’s top 50 conservation heroes. 

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BBC Wildlife Magazine Power List illustration by Matt Herring

Who has the potential to change the fortunes of wildlife and the way we experience the natural world over the next decade? We asked a team of experts to nominate conservationists, scientists, broadcasters, artists and writers to identify the 50 most influential people in British wildlife...

How we did it

We used the expertise of the BBC Wildlife Magazine Advisory Panel and consulted dozens of other wildlife experts to create a longlist of nominations. We then narrowed this list down by looking for evidence of substantial positive impact and the likelihood of increasing impact over the coming years. Our key criteria were influence and potential, so our final list includes Britain’s rising stars as well as established names.

50 ATM Conservation street artist

Bitterns have been spotted in Bethnal Green, barn owls in Acton and great bustards in Whitechapel. These and other threatened birds are surprising countless Londoners thanks to the larger-than-life murals of ‘ATM’, one of several street artists using bare concrete and brick to highlight conservation issues in the unlikely setting of our often-monochrome urban environment.

49 Chris Watson Sound recordist

No one has done more to shape how we hear the natural world. From displaying lyrebirds in Australia to the incoming tide and groaning glaciers, Chris’s immersive soundscapes are part-documentary, part-artform and always staggeringly beautiful. Chris was a key member of the team that produced BBC Radio 4’s groundbreaking and much-loved Tweet of the Day series.

48 Georgia Locock Blogger and activist

Disaffected teens? Sixteen-year-old Georgia shows why that’s such a tired cliché – when not introducing children to nature at her local forest school, she blogs, writes for newspapers, campaigns and volunteers with a badger bTB vaccination programme in Staffordshire. She has also appeared on CBBC and Autumnwatch: one to watch.

47 Chris Powell Co-owner, Gigrin Farm

One of the great conservation success stories of the past 30 years has been the comeback of red kites across large areas of Britain. Kite feeding has become one of our most spectacular wildlife experiences, and Gigrin Farm – owned by Chris and Dominique Powell – was not only the first to get in on the act, it’s also still one of the most popular.

46 Peter Evans Director, Sea Watch Foundation

One of the Sea Watch Foundation’s key roles is monitoring the bottlenose dolphins, porpoises and grey seals of Cardigan Bay, off the west coast of Wales. Peter established the charity in 1991. Data collected by its researchers helped to win protection for the area’s marine wildlife in the first place, and is still crucial in ensuring that potentially harmful developments are thwarted.

45 Helen Browning Chief executive, Soil Association

Some UK farmers go the extra mile for wildlife – the Merricks and Fulton families at Elmley on the Isle of Sheppey, Chris Knights in Norfolk, Nicholas Watts in Lincolnshire and Henry Edmunds in the Salisbury Plain all spring to mind. But as head of the UK’s leading organic farming group, Helen has great influence. Nothing better represents our connection to nature than soil and the way we use it to produce the food we eat. Helen runs the 540ha organic Eastbrook Farm in Wiltshire, a role model for wildlife-friendly agriculture. She has planted 35,000 trees, laid 11km of hedges and you can taste the produce at her pub, The Royal Oak.

44 Ian Singleton Conservation director, Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme

Protecting orangutans in Sumatra is a hard and gruelling business. It’s not the field work, however, but dealing with rapacious palm-oil companies and weak governments that really takes its toll. Ian is in the frontline of the fight to protect Sumatra’s rainforests for its orangutans and, by extension, tigers, hornbills and many other rare species.

43 Jess French TV presenter and trainee vet

Minibeast Adventure with Jess, a huge hit on CBeebies last summer and endlessly repeated since, has transfixed the nation’s two- and three-year-olds, showing them the wonderful world of spiders, earwigs and slugs. Jess filmed the series after doing work experience at BBC Wildlife; she hopes to work with wild primates, but we predict she’ll also be back in front of the TV cameras soon, inspiring a new generation.

42 Maggie Gowan British Wildlife Photography Awards

Maggie launched the British Wildlife Photography Awards in 2009. While lacking the global reach of other competitions, they enjoy an impressively high profile in the UK, and are a potent vehicle for highlighting domestic conservation. Their importance will surely grow, bringing the beauty of Britain’s wildlife to an ever-wider audience.

41 Dave Sexton RSPB Mull officer 

The wildlife-rich island of Mull is a symbol of the benefits of ecotourism, mainly down to its resident white-tailed and golden eagles. In 2010 a survey found that one in four visitors to Mull were there because of these raptors, contributing £5 million annually to the local economy. Dave is the lucky man tasked with keeping an eye on the eagles and making sure they continue to pay their way.

40 Jake McGowan Bone collector

Aged six, Jake’s discovery of a rabbit skull sparked his passion for bones; seven years later, he has one of the UK’s largest private collections, with over 3,000 specimens. He explains how to identify and preserve bones via his website (www.jakes-bones.com) and has a global following. He’s shared the BBC One Show sofa with David Attenborough and proves hands-on biology can be cool.

39 Richard Lewington Entomological artist

Anyone with an interest in Britain’s moths, butterflies, dragonflies or damselflies will have pored over Richard’s phenomenally accurate illustrations. This autumn he will revolutionise the identification (and therefore conservation) of another insect group, with his new field guide to bees – the first single-volume book on British Apoidea since one by Edward Saunders in 1896.

38 Lucy McRobert Campaigns manager, Wildlife Trusts

Lucy exemplifies the modern conservationist, equally at home in a House of Commons panel debate, Springwatch Extra studio or windswept wetland. Three years after graduating, she campaigns for The Wildlife Trusts and helped to set up A Focus on Nature, which offers mentoring for young conservationists aged 16–30. A future CEO.

37 Mike Rands Executive director, Cambridge Conservation Campus initiative

Why shouldn’t conservation share the same status at universities as business, medicine or law? That’s the philosophy guiding the new Cambridge Conservation Campus, led by Mike, formerly head of BirdLife International. When fully open in 2016, it will be the world’s biggest gathering of conservation NGOs, providing a base where scientists from organisations including the IUCN, BirdLife, BTO, RSPB, Fauna & Flora International and TRAFFIC can share ideas.

36 Rory Wilson Professor of aquatic biology, Swansea University

While studying penguins in the 1980s, Rory invented the data logger, a device that records information about the movements of animals. His increasingly sophisticated devices have been tagged to over 100 species, including cheetahs, condors, oryx, sloths and whale sharks. He won a Rolex Award for Enterprise in 2006 and this technology will develop our understanding of the natural world for years to come.

35 Findlay Wilde Blogger and activist

He won’t be able to vote until 2020, yet Finn is more politically active than many experienced conservation ‘suits’. A blogger and trainee ringer, he created Harry the Hen Harrier – a fibreboard mascot that is touring the UK to raise awareness of crime against raptors. When he shared the stage with five other young conservationists at a recent BTO event, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

34 Tim Mackrill Senior reserve officer, Rutland Osprey Project

The high-profile osprey-translocation scheme at Rutland Water, which Tim starting helping aged 14 years old and today manages, is as much about education and community engagement as species conservation. Through guided visits and boat trips, nest webcams, outreach to schools both locally and in Gambia (where many British ospreys overwinter), and World Osprey Week – a global online celebration of migration – Tim and his team of volunteers have reached many thousands of people.

33 Zac Goldsmith Conservative Party

Conservatives and wildlife conservation should go hand-in-hand (the clue’s in the name), though this is seldom the popular perception. However, Zac – former editor of The Ecologist and MP for Richmond Park – breaks the mould. He speaks out on issues such as animal welfare and the illegal wildlife trade, and achieved a notable success in March when, together with the Pew Charitable Trust, he persuaded the Government to set up a marine conservation zone around the Pitcairn Islands.

32 Paul O’Donoghue Lynx UK Trust

Reintroductions to the UK of once-native predators have been notable by their absence, something Paul, a geneticist at Chester University, is determined to change. Will the Lynx UK Trust – a new and as-yet-untested organisation – eventually succeed in restoring lynx to Britain? If a wide enough coalition of conservationists and sceptical landowners and farmers can be brought on board, it’s a tantalising possibility.

31 Callum Roberts Professor of marine conservation, University of York

From oceanic acidification to plastic pollution and ever-shrinking fishing catches, Callum popularises the scientific evidence that shows in stark terms just how much – and fast – our seas are changing. For years he has been one of the world’s most influential proponents of marine protected areas and no-take zones, and his compelling, passionately argued 2012 book Ocean of Life is a must-read.

30 Tony Juniper Author and activist

Tony is unapologetic about the need for conservation to embrace business and commerce, and his latest book What Nature Does for Britain dares to quantify nature in monetary terms, pointing out that it does an estimated £1.5 trillion-worth of work for the UK each year. A former director of Friends of the Earth, Tony can be found beating a drum for the environment at seminars, conferences and festivals around the world.

29 Debbie Pain Director of conservation, Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust

As the author of 26 studies into lead contamination in wild birds, Debbie is an important voice on the Lead Ammunition Group. It may hardly be a household name, but this panel’s recommendations to the Government (expected soon) could have a lasting conservation impact because thousands of wildfowl and other birds are still poisoned every year after ingesting lead shot. One of the many other important projects Debbie oversees is the complex international rescue of the Critically Endangered spoon-billed sandpiper.

28 Mark Constantine Owner, Lush

High-street store Lush is best known for its nostril-assaulting bathbombs, but also sets a high standard for responsible business, giving 2 per cent of profits to charities such as Sea Shepherd, the Dorset Wildlife Trust and the Sumatran Orangutan Society. Mark is a keen birder and as part of the ‘Sound Approach’ team publishes innovative books, most recently on owl vocalisations.

27 Mary Colwell Radio producer and blogger

Working for Radio 4’s Shared Planet, Mary helps define the conservation debate. As a contributor to The Tablet, she speaks to the Catholic faithful. On hunting in Malta, she writes: “The Church so often is afraid to rock the boat and can’t decide what it really thinks about nature. This is such an obvious issue on which to lead from the front.” Her blog is excellent: http://marycolwell.blogspot.co.uk.

26 William Bird GP and health campaigner

Many studies prove that nature is good for our health, so why not harness it to relieve pressure on the NHS? This logic is what drives William, a practising GP. His organisation Intelligent Health promotes green gyms, ecotherapy and prescriptions for time outdoors. He works with local authorities and Clinical Commissioning Groups. Could more time outside also help to foster more concern for the natural world? 

25 Helen Roy Principal scientist, Biological Records Centre

Citizen science has come of age and Helen is at the forefront of efforts to use websites, apps and bioblitzes to engage more people in species recording, which provides data for effective conservation. She is best known for work on the UK Ladybird Survey (www.ladybird-survey.org), which tracked the spread of non-native harlequin ladybirds. Last year she launched the Big Bumblebee Discovery Project, which got 30,000 people (many of them youngsters) involved in practical ecology.

24 Michael Dixon Director, Natural History Museum

Each year up to 4.5 million people visit Britain’s largest natural-history museum. Michael sets the direction for its research and special exhibitions, including Wildlife Photographer of the Year. The museum’s collections are of great educational and historical importance, while its specimens (and their DNA) have huge research value.

23 Dylan Walker Co-founder, World Cetacean Alliance and WhaleFest

If SeaWorld bows to growing pressure and stops keeping orcas captive, it will in part be due to campaigning by the World Cetacean Alliance. The WCA acts like a planetary loudhailer for marine conservation and responsible tourist organisations. WhaleFest, its sister event in Brighton, is a family-friendly celebration of the marine environment. He also set up ORCA, which surveys the Bay of Biscay and established it as a key whale-watching destination.

22 Caroline Lucas Green Party

This list was compiled prior to the Election, so at the time of writing we can’t be sure if Britain’s first Green Party MP will retain her seat, or be joined by other Greens. As MP, Caroline has campaigned against pesticides, fought to protect woodland and endangered species, and argued for a plastic-bag tax. She has often been a lone parliamentary voice for the natural world, but with Green Party membership at an all-time high, she has set her party on a path that could do a great deal to benefit Britain’s wildlife.

21 John Burton Chief executive, World Land Trust

Any organisation that counts Chris Packham and David Attenborough as its patrons must have something going for it, and the World Land Trust certainly does. Established in 1989 by former BBC Wildlife assistant editor John Burton, the charity pioneered a new conservation model that involved helping local organisations to buy and protect land. Since then, John has helped raise £19 million for conserving wildlife habitat in South and Central America, Africa and Asia.

20 Tim Birkhead Professor of zoology, University of Sheffield

One of our top ornithologists, Tim sparked a national debate about the importance of long-term field studies when the grant was cut for guillemot research he has carried out on Skomer Island since 1972. Turning to crowdfunding to cover the shortfall, he raised awareness of a financial fix more zoologists now look likely to adopt. Tim is also co-founder of New Networks for Nature, a collective of conservationists, scientists and artists that runs a two-day public symposium each November – highly recommended.

19 Brian may Activist

Queen guitarist Brian May has been the unlikely heart and soul of the campaign against badger culling. Though protestors in Gloucestershire and Somerset didn’t need his rallying cry to begin direct action against the culls, Brian nevertheless provided a focal point for what became a grassroots uprising. He brought the issue to much wider attention, too. His eccentric Save The Badger Badger Badger video, featuring hundreds of ‘hawkmen’ badgers from the cult film Flash Gordon, has had more than 1.5 million hits on YouTube. If you haven’t seen it already... you should.

18 Wendy Darke Head, BBC Natural History Unit (NHU)

In 2012 marine biologist Wendy Darke became the first female head of the BBC’s NHU. She made her name in children’s TV, launching Steve Backshall’s Deadly 60, and last year’s Hidden Kingdoms is representative of the innovative, drama-driven series that she believes will help re-energise wildlife broadcasting. For many, primetime TV is the most significant interaction they have with nature, but series like Springwatch have phenomenal potential to inspire people to get out and discover wildlife for themselves.

17 Georgina Mace Professor of biodiversity and ecosystems, University College London

The IUCN Red List is described as the most comprehensive inventory of life on Earth: a measure of the global conservation status of plants and animals. Georgina is a specialist in measuring the trends and consequences of biodiversity loss, and played a pivotal role in developing criteria for species on the Red List. It is these criteria that will inform and determine the priorities conservationists set for many years to come. “Biodiversity is a concept that is hard to summarise,” explains Georgina, “but its increasing policy presence means that it is important to consider how best to measure it.”

16 Derek Gow Ecologist

The re-release of five adult beavers on the River Otter in Devon in March marked a significant stage in a campaign that has been running for some two decades. Derek has been the most vocal advocate for bringing beavers back to England, and Defra’s decision to allow the rodents to remain for a five-year trial is partly thanks to him. “It’s a tipping point,” he says. “Society made it clear they wanted the Devon beavers to stay.” He has also assisted the Scottish Beaver Trial.

15 Martin Warren Chief executive, Butterfly Conservation

If our butterflies and moths have a voice, it is largely down to Martin, a disarmingly modest entomologist who began his career studying the wood white and later dreamed up the idea of a charity dedicated to Lepidoptera. Martin was the organisation’s first employee in 1993, and it currently boasts more than 70 members of staff, 34 excellent reserves and an enormously successful summer survey – the Big Butterfly Count. Nowadays, the charity’s most crucial work is landscape-scale habitat creation, for example to boost marsh fritillary populations in Scotland and Devon.

14 Mark Avery Blogger and activist

One of our most influential conservation bloggers, Mark is a formidable debater who relishes locking horns with politicians and the shooting lobby, particularly over illegal raptor persecution. He has put moorland degradation on the news agenda and is a key figure in the campaign to ban driven grouse shoots. His 2014 book A Message from Martha looked at lessons from the North American passenger pigeon’s demise; his next, Inglorious: Conflict in the Uplands, will keep the focus on hen harrier persecution.

13 Matt Shardlow Chief executive, Buglife

A decade ago, you’d have struggled to find media outlets giving column inches to invertebrates. The emergence of Buglife in 2002 changed that, and today the decline of our bugs and beetles is of increasing public importance. As the cheerleader for Buglife, Matt has been instrumental in this shift in attitudes, though he’s clear that there’s still much work to do. “Bugs are 70 per cent of the planet’s species, but the focus of under 1 per cent of published wildlife science – this will have to change,” he said recently.

12 Helen Macdonald Author

Nature writing is the new rock ’n’ roll, but even so the success of Helen’s H is for Hawk has been stratospheric. Acclaimed for its “muscular” and “scalpel-like prose” by the judges of the Costa Book Awards 2015, it has reach far beyond the audience that might be expected for a book about falconry. “I have this utopian notion that if you have close personal contact with wild animals... you feel a responsibility and a love for it, which is what drives proper conservation,” Helen explains. Nature writing has long been male-dominated, but Helen is at the forefront of an exciting new wave of female writers talking about nature, including Melissa Harrison, Katharine Norbury, Amy Liptrot, Sarah Hall and Esther Woolfson.

11 Steve Backshall Broadcaster

Anyone who has young children or grandchildren will have felt Steve’s influence in their homes. In smash-hit series such as Deadly 60 and Deadly Pole to Pole, he’s been on global missions to get close to a host of exciting animals. He’s been bitten by a shark and attacked by a caiman, and his audience adores him for it. The stat-heavy Deadly format is one of the BBC’s most successful brands – wherever Steve appears, crowds of families follow. Though the BAFTA award-winning presenter puts in the hours with numerous wildlife charities, Steve’s real impact will be measured by how many of the Deadly generation are inspired to do more for the natural world. In 20 years, how many will cite his shows as the reason they became scientists or conservation volunteers?

10 Martin Harper Conservation director, RSPB

Like his predecessor Mark Avery, Martin acts as a ‘keeper of the flame’ for the UK’s biggest, best-funded conservation charity. As such, his blog gets significant scrutiny. So when he wrote in March that shooting pheasants and grey partridges can provide benefits for wildlife, there was a firestorm. But, as Martin said, he was merely giving praise where it was due: “Nature needs all the friends it can get, especially those who invest in managing their land in a sensitive and thoughtful way.” The RSPB is itself a major landowner and his department is key to how it runs its reserves and its relationships with other landowners, especially farmers.

Dave Goulson Professor of biological sciences, University of Sussex

Dave founded the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and is the driving force behind the recent reintroduction of the short-haired bumblebee (a species that died out here in 1988) to Kent’s coastal marshes. But he earns his place in our Top 10 for the clarity, verve and unyielding determination with which he speaks out against the dangers that neonicotinoid pesticides pose to our wildlife, especially bees. For this he has had to endure media uproar, as described in Chapter 13 of his superb 2014 book, A Buzz in the Meadow. “We can’t easily solve all of the problems affecting bees, but we can stop poisoning them,” he writes. “Isn’t it time we did so?” With an end to the UK’s temporary ban on neonics in sight, his voice will be increasingly important.

8 Rosie Woodroffe Senior research fellow, ZSL

Any journalist worth their salt knows exactly who to talk to if they really want to understand the science behind the badger cull. Professor Rosie Woodroffe sat on the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB (which produced the final verdict on the Randomised Badger Culling Trials in 2007), and has carried out extensive research into the impact of badger culling on TB in cattle. She has also studied alternative methods of dealing with the disease. And her view? “Despite the environment secretary’s optimism, there is so far no evidence that these pilot culls have reduced disease,” she wrote in The Ecologist back in January. Rosie’s respected, authoritative position makes her a key figure in this ongoing and high-stakes debate.

David Lindo Broadcaster

As a kid David’s local patch was Wormwood Scrubs in West London, and his focus on urban wildlife puts nature within the reach of a whole new demographic. But it’s his campaign to find a national bird for the UK that propelled him into our Top 10. When so many headlines about wildlife are doom and gloom, he has found an uplifting way to talk about even divisive issues such as hen harriers. “This poll was all about national identity, politics, educating kids and, importantly, conservation,” he says.

George Monbiot Environmental commentator and author

George says simply that he writes about things that make him angry, but his ability to pick the subjects that matter, nail an argument and confront vested interests makes him Britain’s leading independent commentator on the environment. The lasting impact of his book Feral (2013), which examines the case for rewilding, continues to win over sceptics. His Guardian column is hugely influential and his talks electrify lecture halls – one of his most inspiring messages is that by acting on what we believe we can all make a difference.

5 HRH Prince William Global ambassador, United for Wildlife

Royalty and celebrity culture may not be to everyone’s taste, but put them together and you can achieve great things. So Prince William’s decision to back a new global campaign against wildlife crime might come to be seen as a tipping point in the war against the illegal wildlife trade. Can his charity, United for Wildlife, stem the demand for products from rhinos, elephants, tigers, pangolins, sharks and other species? He has the ear of Chinese president Xi Jinping, and images of him standing on an anti-poaching podium with David Beckham and former basketball player Yao Ming (a huge celebrity in China) have reached millions of smartphone screens where it matters – in the Far East. It is William’s ability to attract celebrity endorsement and bring international politicians and conservation groups together that makes him such a potent force for change.

David Attenborough Broadcaster

“Oh, I’m not ready to stop yet,” David breezily told BBC Wildlife at home in 2012. He gave us the same answer on location in 2013. And he’s carried on working as hard as ever, relentlessly pushing boundaries in his epic natural-history programmes, for example to embrace the latest 3D, CGI and high-definition technology. A favourite with his production crews as well as vast TV audiences watching worldwide, David has been a star for six decades now. Previously criticised for glossing over harsh conservation realities in his gorgeous wildlife documentaries, the veteran presenter has increasingly voiced his fears about climate change, human overpopulation, Creationism and the English badger cull, among many other issues. In 2014 his opposition to oil exploration in Uganda’s Virunga National Park made British company Soco International think twice. An Attenborough appearance or endorsement is fundraising gold for charities. Yet his refusal to do commercials, refreshing in the modern age, is vital to the authority of his storytelling. When David speaks, we listen. “I can’t believe this is my day job,” David confided to BBC Wildlife, before adding: “Well, it’s not really a proper job, is it?” We think it is, and it is to David that millions of people owe their understanding of nature.

3 David Macdonald Director, WildCRU, Oxford University

Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit has many pioneering projects worldwide, including work on the Endangered Ethiopian wolves of the Bale Mountains, and on lions in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe. David’s influence is felt here in the UK, too. “I’m very proud of our 25 years of badger studies,” David says. “They spawned the original idea of perturbation, which has proved useful in understanding bovine TB.” WildCRU has also begun a ‘panther’ programme, training students from poor backgrounds around the world before sending them back to their countries to work as agents of change. 

2 Chris Packham Broadcaster

With his forthright opinions and rockabilly quiff, Chris has long been the punk presenter of wildlife TV – and today is its most important spokesperson. “I’ve run out of patience for fence sitters,” he told BBC Wildlife in 2011. “The worst are those putting the ‘con’ in conservation; organisations that care more about blindfolding their members than making a real difference.” And Chris puts his money where his mouth is, organising a mission to Malta in spring 2014 to highlight the illegal massacre of migratory birds, which thousands of people followed on YouTube. Whether it is the “shameful” English badger cull trial or “barbaric” animal abuse on I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!, Chris knows how to make headlines and get people talking. Most of all, his public appearances, writing and TV programmes have the credibility that comes from a lifetime spent exploring the natural world. “You have to get scratched, stung and slimed,” he says. “It needs to come from the heart, not the hard drive.” His ability to inspire others to follow this mantra is what puts him so high on our power list.

1 Jane Goodall Jane Goodall Institute

It’s February 2014, and at a major international conference on the depressingly lucrative illegal wildlife trade, a slight, grey-haired woman is standing in a corner being mobbed by journalists. She is without doubt the superstar at this event. Jane Goodall, together with David Attenborough, belongs to a very select group of people – British conservationists who have a genuinely global reach. She manages it through the Jane Goodall Institute, a huge community-focused environmental organisation for which she travels on speaking tours for 300 days a year. The Institute works with villagers across five chimpanzee range states in Africa, and its Roots & Shoots youth movement has 150,000 members spread across 130 countries. Jane’s revelatory work with chimps made her reputation. She was the first to document chimps using tools, one of the most momentous scientific discoveries of the 20th century, and she arguably has a deeper insight into the chimpanzee mind than anyone else alive. “They are capable of violence and brutality,” she says, “but my definition of evil is that it’s premeditated. I don’t think a chimp could plan to torture. We do.” Jane’s enduring influence and global reach put her clearly at the top of our list.

What do you think?

A great deal of work went into this list – but did our expert panel get it right? We’d love to know what you think. Who would you include? 

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