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The best safaris in Kenya: Overview

Stuart Butler
By Stuart Butler

I've been going on safari in Kenya for decades, as a travel journalist and guidebook author writing about safari, conservation and life among the Maasai tribes. This is the original home of the safari and, in my view, it’s still one of the finest safari destinations in Africa.

The main thing I've learned: there's so much more to safari in Kenya than the mainstream of luxury camps and the famed “big five” (so named because they were the prize targets of colonial–era hunters).

Kenya safari: at a glance
  • My favourite safari park: the Masai Mara is the part of Kenya I've spent most time in and have some magical memories living with Maasai herders. A tie for my favourite Kenya safari park would be the virtually forgotten and blissfully quiet Meru.
  • My favourite conservancy: Kenya's privately-run conservancies are consistently excellent, in the Masai Mara, the Nashulai Maasai Conservancy is particularly interesting, as it’s the only one that was 100% established by local Maasai and the only one where they remain in their homes within the conservancy.
  • Overrated: accommodations within the national parks are often drab, for a real treat look at the adjacent conservancies.
  • When to go:In my experience the best time for safari in Kenya – especially in the busier parks – is either June before the crowds arrive or September-October as the crowds are thinning out.

Ready to go? Read on for my guide to the best safaris in Kenya. Safari njema! – (Have a nice trip!)

The best safaris in Kenya

Kenya’s most popular – and some underrated – safari highlights

Don't be swayed by the Masai Mara's magnetic pull. There are many hidden gems to be discovered in Kenya: here are a few of my top recommendations.

Kenya's best safari parks

Kenya’s most popular safari parks and lesser-known hidden gems

Kenya proudly boasts of an impressive network of protected spaces made up of 65 national parks and reserves as well as dozens of private and community conservancies. Together these cover a huge proportion of Kenya’s diverse landscapes and provide a home for animals as large as an elephant and as tiny as an elephant shrew.

Some parks, such as the Masai Mara and Amboseli, are rightly world famous. Other parks, such as Meru National Parkor Kakamega Forest Reserve, barely make a blip on the mainstream safari circuit but are every bit as rewarding (and much quieter!) then the big name parks and reserves.

Best for tranquil, crowd-free safaris
Meru National Park

Best for tranquil, crowd-free safaris

Stuart Butler
By Stuart Butler

Meru, the country’s forgotten national park, is easily one of my favourite of all Kenya’s safari parks. This was once one of the most popular parks in the country but during the 1980s, when Kenya was going through a rough political patch and instability overwhelmed some parts of the country, Meru turned into a hotbed of poaching.

Security and stability have long since returned, yet somehow this park never returned to its former fame. But for those in the know – and that now includes you – Meru National Park is safari gold.

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For the classic – if busy – Kenya safari
Masai Mara National Reserve

For the classic – if busy – Kenya safari

Stuart Butler
By Stuart Butler

The very essence of an African safari landscape, the Masai Mara stretches along the Kenya-Tanzania border and forms the northern fringe of the greater Serengeti ecosystem (most of which is in Tanzania).

This is the part of Kenya in which I have spent the most time (months and months if I added it all up), and was the scene of one of my best ever travel experiences. Some years ago a Maasai friend and I set out on a five week hike that took us across the entire Mara ecosystem. By day we walked alongside the wildlife and Maasai herders. By night we camped out under the stars and slept in traditional Maasai villages. An unforgettable adventure!

This is the place to see large prides of black-manned lions, bellowing elephants, grumpy buffalo and a pick ‘n’ mix box of antelope and gazelles. And that’s before we even touch on the smaller creatures and huge array of birds. But, above and beyond all else, the Mara is renowned for the spectacular wildebeest migration.

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For elephants & Kilimanjaro views
Amboseli National Park

For elephants & Kilimanjaro views

Stuart Butler
By Stuart Butler

Amboseli National Park is the postcard park of Kenya. This is where those photographs are taken of elephants with a backdrop of the (fast melting!) glaciers of Mt Kilimanjaro. I have spent many dreamy mornings parked under an acacia tree, a thermos of coffee in hand watching the rising sun tinge the snows of Kilimanjaro a pinky-red.

The elephants and the scenery are the real highlights of this park. In dry periods they flock here from miles around to quench their thirst in the swamps and pools that splash the dusty landscape in greens.

Another big reason to visit Amboseli is the chance to see conservation in action in the conservancies and other environmental and community projects surrounding the park.

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For wetland safari & birdwatching
Lake Nakuru National Park

For wetland safari & birdwatching

Stuart Butler
By Stuart Butler

Just 5 kilometres from the big city of Nakaru, Lake Nakuru National Park’s accessibility makes it one of the most popular Kenya safari hotspots. It’s centred on the large Rift Valley soda lake of the same name, but also encompasses fringing grasslands, acacia woodlands and rocky escarpments.

The park is best known for its sometimes huge flocks of flamingos and a large rhino population. Back in the 1990’s, Lake Nakuru was the first place where I saw a really huge flock of flamingos. I’d seen the odd handful before, but the thousands upon thousands I saw here on that day sticks in my memory. The smell (ah yes the smell!), the noise, and of course the searing pink colours; It was one of the moments that made me fall in love with Kenya.

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Best for wide open spaces
Tsavo East & West National Parks

Best for wide open spaces

Stuart Butler
By Stuart Butler

Combined, Tsavo East and West National Parks cover an enormous swathe of acacia scrub Kenyan wilderness. Tsavo West alone (the bigger of the two parks) covers an area greater in size than Wales, or two and half times the size of Yellowstone National Park.

The two parks are separated from each other by the Nairobi-Mombasa highway and are easy to reach from either city.

Despite being directly adjacent, the two parks are radically different from one another with the green hills of Tsavo East a marked contrast to the red soil and volcanic landscapes of Tsavo West. Because of their diversity and sheer size, I strongly recommend you devote enough time to the parks if you’re going to visit them. The rushed two-day safaris from Mombasa (or Nairobi) simply don’t allow enough time to get much out of a visit.

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For world-leading conservation
Laikipia

For world-leading conservation

Stuart Butler
By Stuart Butler

The Laikipia plateau area in central Kenya is one of the most exciting places in African conservation. This isn’t a single national park or reserve, but rather a network of interlocking private and community-run conservancies where people, livestock and wildlife live together to the benefit of all.

Laikipia hosts all the classic East African safari mammals but is best known for its rhinos, including the critically endangered northern white rhino, only two of which are left alive. Both are female and so, tragically, this is a species awaiting extinction. They can be seen at the Ol Pejeta conservancy.

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Kenya’s remote far north
Samburu Game Reserve

Kenya’s remote far north

Stuart Butler
By Stuart Butler

Samburu, Buffalo Springs and Shaba National Reserves are three interconnected reserves on the edge of northern Kenya’s vast semi-desert wilderness.

Far removed from mainstream Kenyan life, these northern regions have a wild reputation. The landscape is harsh with endless sunburnt plains of acacia thornbush out of which rise the occasional fertile and densely forested mountain peaks, ranges, table lands and volcanic plugs.

Elephants, in particular, are the main event here. There are large herds who can migrate huge distances in search of water.

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Safari in the big city
Nairobi

Safari in the big city

Stuart Butler
By Stuart Butler

While most capital cities have their collection of ornate parks filled with neatly cut lawns, manicured flower beds and perhaps a boating lake, Nairobi has gone one step further.

Its biggest ‘park’ is in fact a 117 square kilometre swathe of undulating savannah grassland and acacia woodland. And while it doesn’t have a boating lake, it does have lions. And buffalo. And rhinos. All of which means that it’s probably not such a sensible place for an after work stroll.

It’s a fabulous safari destination but is woefully overlooked by international visitors to Kenya. This is a shame, because Nairobi National Park is an excellent safari location in its own right. I have been many times, often just for a quick half-day drive from the city. This was the place I first witnessed the thrill of a hunt: a cheetah racing, but failing, to grab dinner for her cubs.

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Ostrich meru national park kenya

A pair of ostrich in Meru National Park

Kenya safaris: Need to know

Everything you wish you'd known before you booked

Stuart Butler
By Stuart Butler

My first Kenya safari was in 1994 and I’ve been coming back pretty much every year since. Here’s what I’ve learned over the years about the best way to plan and book a safari in Kenya.

Mix up your itinerary

My single most important tip for Kenya safari first-timers is to avoid the mistake of non-stop game drives. Standard tour operator itineraries shuttle you from park to park with a gruelling schedule of game drives. Yes, this is the best way of seeing large mammals up close, but the bumpy tracks, early starts and long hours quickly exhaust even the most ardent wildlife-watcher. And there is so much more to safari in Kenya that you’ll miss from racing around in a jeep. Break it up. Look for operators who offer bush walks, village visits, and conservation projects. Or simply take an afternoon or two to sit back under a tree enjoying the sights, sounds and smells.

Don’t miss Kenya’s many hidden gems

Most standardised Kenya safari itineraries reduce the entire country to the blockbuster highlights: the Mara, Amboseli, Lake Nakuru… maybe Tsavo and Samburu if they’re feeling adventurous. This does a great disservice to the country’s true diversity. There’s so much more to a Kenya safari than racing around the savannah chasing the big five and I’d strongly advise you find time to visit some of Kenya’s numerous hidden gems.

For instance, out in the far west is Kakamega Forest Reserve which has more in common with the rainforests of Uganda and the Congo than the classic Kenya landscape. In my opinion this is one of the most delightful places in Kenya, yet hardly any tourists know of its existence.

Another personal favourite that’s a world away from the classic Kenya savannah is Aberdare National Park where dense tangled montane jungle gives way to a high, cold and often bleak moorland. Unusually among Kenyan national parks, you can also get out of the vehicle here and enjoy long, lonely hikes over the moorlands.

But that’s not it: Saiwa Swamp, the Chyulu Hills, Hells Gate, Ruma National Park, and many more that rarely feature on the mainstream Kenya safari circuit but are usually accessible on a self-drive safari, or with more specialist safari operators.

Get out of the safari bubble

Stuart Butler
By Stuart Butler

Many safari goers, especially those on a high end tour just bounce from one heavenly safari camp to another. Sure, you live the Hollywood Africa dream but you’ve not really experienced real Kenya. Instead, hop on a bus and head out to one of the numerous small market towns where most Kenyans live. You’ll experience a totally different side of the country and it’s one that will stay with you long after the sundowner safari drinks fade from memory.

Stay in at least one conservancy

National parks, reserves and conservancies are mentioned a lot in this guide, but just what is the difference and why does it matter?

A national park or reserve is a government or local council run protected area. Most of the best-known protected areas in Kenya fall into this category.

These areas are run solely for the benefit of wildlife and tourism, sometimes at the expense of local people. Tourism in these areas creates jobs, but locals are often forbidden from entering these protected areas other than for work reasons and communities were often (but not always) removed from their land when the parks and reserves were created. Corruption can be a problem with the money generated by these parks not always going where it should.

A conservancy is a different affair. A conservancy is normally located on either communal land owned by the community as a whole or on private ranch land and has no official government status. On a community conservancy the tourism stakeholders (i.e. the safari camps) lease the land from the local communities on the condition that the land is managed in a manner that is of benefit to both people and animals. The (normally very high) fees you pay to stay in a conservancy go toward paying the land leasing fees as well as various community and environmental projects.

Other conservancies may be located on private ranchland, in which case they have to make enough money for the landowner to financially justify turning his land over to wildlife conservation over cattle ranching.

In other words, a conservancy is run for the benefit of both wildlife conservation, tourism and the needs of local communities (in many cases local people are allowed to continue to graze their cattle on a conservancy but in a controlled and sustainable manner).

All of this means that staying in a conservancy is not just a great safari experience but it’s also very good news for conservation!

Do a homestay

For a cultural experience you’ll never forget, try spending a night at a Maasai homestay near the Masai Mara. Finding authentic, community-run homestays can be a bit of a minefield. I can recommend Sekenani Maasai Development Project (Semadep) but there are others – make sure you book with a community owned and operated outfit, and check reviews carefully.

Caution needed: "Human safaris"

Denise Carnihan
By Denise Carnihan

In my opinion, one of the big problems with the safari industry is the way it prioritises seeing wildlife over having meaningful connections with local people. In fact, other than being served by their guides, drivers and camp employees, a typical safari-goer might not have any interaction with a local at all. To me, this is the exact opposite of how it should be done! In my experience, a good trip to Kenya isn't just about seeing wildlife: it should put intimate, authentic interactions with local people at the heart of the whole experience. You can make genuine connections and real friendships as you sit around, sharing stories, laughing and learning from each other.

On the other hand, mainstream Kenya safaris are often sold with "village tour" or even "slum tour" add-ons. These "goldfish bowl safaris" as I call them are unethical and nothing short of exploitation. They violate the privacy, integrity and dignity of local communities and undermine sustainable development by perpetuating a myth of backward, poverty-stricken people. The traveller thinks they're doing the right thing by getting some cultural interaction, but in reality it's deeply damaging. I strongly encourage visitors to avoid anything that feels contrived, and look for trips that put real people at the heart of the experience, rather than an afterthought.

How to plan & book a Kenya safari

There are three broad categories of safaris in Kenya.

The first and easiest option is to book a week(s)-long, multi-stop itinerary through a tour operator, either locally-based or international. This provides the most hand-holding and support for cautious visitors, plus more protection should things go wrong. The potential downside is getting shunted onto one of the more formulaic itineraries and simply following the crowds around the most popular parks. If you book a full tour with an operator, try to find a genuine specialist and ask about visiting some of the lesser-known locations mentioned in this guide.

Secondly you can simply show up and book a safari tour once in-country from the hundreds of operators in Nairobi. There’s nothing inherently wrong with doing it this way but I strongly advise you don’t just book something in the street. Do your homework first and find a reputable, responsible operator. Things to double check include whether park entry fees are included in the price, vehicle type (avoid cramped minibuses), and accommodation type.

Thirdly, and probably my recommendation for all but the most cautious of visitors, is to book the accommodation yourself, rent a car (or a car plus driver), and head out solo. You can take your own camping gear or book into lodges or camps (booking ahead is essential!), or mix camping with more comfortable nights in lodges. I strongly advise renting a vehicle plus driver. It’s often cheaper plus you get an unofficial local guide who knows the ropes. A good driver will become a cultural and language translator, wildlife guide, fixer, and general guardian angel.

Aim for shoulder season if possible

High season in Kenya is the peak summer months of July to September, before the rains begin. In my experience the best time to visit – especially in the busier parks – is either June before the crowds arrive or September-October as the crowds are thinning out, wildlife viewing is excellent and temperatures are ideal.

Be prepared to splash out!

There are almost as many different ways of doing a safari as there are stripes on a zebra and how, when and where you safari makes a huge difference to what you pay. Expect to pay anything from $150 to $1,000+ per person per day.

You can find very low budget two or three day safaris to the Mara from around $250 all in, but these are generally rushed, crowded and uncomfortable. If you’re looking to shave off some costs without compromising on the experience, consider doing a DIY camping safari with your own vehicle and driver.

My other big Keny safari tip is to spend as much as your budget allows on fewer nights in better conservancies and camps. Packing more into fewer days gives you much greater bang for your buck.

Kenya safari FAQs

Your questions, our expert answers

Question

Is it safe / a good idea to rent a car in Kenya and drive yourself around, or is it better to join a tour?

M
Asked by Mario
Answer

Yes, it's perfectly easy to do a self-drive Kenya safari. When you ask if it's "safe" that depends a little on what you mean. If you mean are there bandits, car jackings, dangers from wildlife, etc, then no you are quite safe. Instead the danger is from other drivers, as the driving conditions can be a little 'hectic' in places and accidents are common.

I'd recommend hiring a car with a driver, which can be a cheaper and, in my opinion, a much better option. A good driver will know the lay of the land, the driving conditions, best places to stop for lunch, etc. And they are often knowledgeable of the wildlife. A good driver will be both your driver and guide, and probably become your friend!

Almost any tour company in Nairobi or Mombasa can organise a private vehicle with a driver. Standards and prices vary hugely, so explain to the tour company exactly where you want to go and get in writing exactly what is and isn't included. Pay particular attention as to whether fuel, and the drivers food and accommodation is included in the rates. Also make sure you're booking the right vehicle: a 4WD may be needed for more remote areas.

Stuart Butler
Answered by Stuart Butler
Question

Where’s the best place to see the big five in Kenya?

Answer

Seeing all the big five (lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo & rhino) in one park is hard. Only Lewa and some of the conservancies in Laikipia can honestly claim to offer easy sightings of all five. But, who cares! This fixation on racing around to tick off just five species is an anachronism from colonial-era big game hunting days. There’s so much more to Kenya’s wildlife and the modern safari experience.

Stuart Butler
Answered by Stuart Butler
Question

We're visiting the Masai Mara but would like to visit another area on safari in Kenya. Can you recommend anywhere very different to the Masai Mara to see different wildlife and landscapes?

M
Asked by Margaret
Answer

The most common combinations for a short add-on to the Masai Mara are Amboseli, Laikipia or the Samburu area.

For your requirements of a different habitat and wildlife then without doubt I would suggest Samburu National Reserve. This is a much drier and hotter area than the Mara with different vegetation and animals. And, even the animals you might have seen in the Mara are different up here with different species of giraffe, zebra and ostrich all present (and in my opinion all more beautiful than the kinds in the Mara). The park is also superb for elephants.

Samburu, though still popular, is notably quieter than the Mara and, once away from the river, it's easy to feel you have the place all to yourself (and especially if you go into the co-joined Buffalo Springs and Shaba reserves). Depending on when you are there you will find direct flights from the Mara, but otherwise will have to go via Nairobi. If you're driving it's a long way – a 10 hour non-stop drive, so flying is the better option.

Stuart Butler
Answered by Stuart Butler
Question

Would you recommend staying at Elephant Bedroom Camp in Samburu Reserve, or at Sarara Camp in Namyunak Conservancy?

R
Asked by Rick
Answer

The quantity and ease of seeing the wildlife is better in Samburu Reserve than in the neighbouring Namyunak Conservancy (because the wildlife is drawn to the river running through the reserve). But there's not a huge difference in habitats or species between the two.

Elephant Bedroom Camp, in Samburu, is a fabulous, small camp. You'll see a lot of elephants and the owners are some of the worlds foremost elephant experts.

In Namyunak Conservancy, Sarara Camp is one of the most exclusive – yet low-key – camps in Kenya. There's slightly less wildlife than in the reserve but it's very close to the reserve and safaris from Sarara often enter the reserve.

The bonus with Sarara is exclusivity. You and the other camp guests will have the entire place to yourself meaning no crowding around animals (though that's rarely a problem in Samburu).

Unlike in the reserve itself you can do walking safaris in the conservancy and there will be more interaction with local people. The final plus is that by staying on a conservancy you will be actively helping to fund private/community conservation initiatives, which isn't always the case when staying only in a reserve or national park.

Overall then, I would opt for Sarara Camp, but I suspect it does cost more, so it might come down to budget!

Stuart Butler
Answered by Stuart Butler
Question

We are travelling with a large group of 5 families with 3-4 kids per family. What are the best budget friendly safaris in Kenya in July?

A
Asked by Assumpta
Answer

If most of the children in your group are very young, your options are fairly limited as the reality is that a longer, multi-day safari can be a bit much with very young kids. I first did a safari with my kids when they were five and two years old and although it was good I probably wouldn't do it again! Past the age of about eight or nine the safari experience gets much easier, as they'll will tolerate sitting in a jeep on a bumpy road for longer.

Do be aware that some safari camps don't accept children below the age of 12. These are normally the unfenced camps and it's done for safety reasons.

You will also need to keep in mind that you will either need several safari jeeps and to travel in convoy or a bus (and these aren't always allowed in some parks). Because you will be travelling with so many children I would suggest small safari camps which you can book out for your group alone. Some of these are more child friendly than others. Some possibiltles that I believe might work well for your group are: Maji Moto Eco Camp, Loita Hills Basecamp, and if you are interested in a Maasai homestay style experience then I'd suggest Semadep Camp, who can arrange homestays around the Masai Mara.

As for specific parks and reserves the Masai Mara area is good because there's a lot of animals to see everywhere you look which keeps children interested. Also good are Nairobi and Narok national parks because of easy access and good roads. Lake Naivasha is good for families too.

It would be easy to combine all these places into a 10 day safari and then you could maybe finish up on the beach (Lamu and Watamu are both superb for families).

Stuart Butler
Answered by Stuart Butler
Question

Can you recommend any family-friendly camps/lodges in the Masai Mara?

A
Asked by Audrey
Answer

I would suggest rather than staying within Masai Mara proper, stay in one of the conservancies that now fringe the Mara.

In the most basic of terms these are like private, community-run wildlife reserves. Conservancy operators lease the land from local people and each local family receives a guaranteed monthly payment. The conservancy also provides employment and sets up development projects. People continue to graze their cattle but in a more controlled manner. And in return, fences are removed and the wildlife encouraged to return to the lands they were once driven out of. The conservancies have been a great success both for wildlife and local people. And, for tourists, they offer a very exclusive experience and the world's finest safaris.

Each conservancy has only a handful of very discreet high end camps and only guests of those camps can go on a safari in the conservancy, which means crowds of vehicles around a lion are non-existent.

The conservancies also allow activities not permitted within the reserve such as walking (highly recommended), bush camping, night safaris, etc. This makes them ideal for kids because it breaks up the routine and allows a little more freedom.

The safari vehicles and guides used in the conservancies are absolutely the best in the game and the wildlife populations are the equal of the actual reserve. However, there's a catch (of course...), conservation like this doesn't come cheap. All of the conservancies are superb but some names are Naboisho, Mara North and Nashulai Maasai Conservancy (this last one being slightly cheaper than the others and lots of focus on meeting local people). As for actual camps you cannot go wrong with any of them. All the conservancy camps are superb. I'm a big fan of the Basecamp offerings, Off-Beat and Kicheche. All are a little less extravagant than some of the other camps.

If you want to only visit the reserve and not a conservancy then I suggest either Basecamp Mara, Oldarpoi or you could go for a Maasai homestay in Sekenani village. Expect basic but perfectly comfortable rooms but an amazing experience. Your kids would really enjoy this.

Stuart Butler
Answered by Stuart Butler
Question

Is February a good time to visit the Masai Mara, or would June-July be better? What would be the differences?

I
Asked by Ishaan
Answer

February is a very good time for safari in the Masai Mara, but also very different to the experience in June and July.

It's hotter and drier in February and generally there are fewer other tourists. There will still be plenty of zebra and wildebeest around but these are the non-migrating resident herds, so they don't form the massive iconic herds that you might see on TV.

July is good because the migrant wildebeest are all normally in the Mara by then, but its also absolute peak high season so can be busy and expensive. June is perhaps my overall favourite month. Everything is green after the rains and it's nice and cool with far fewer tourists than July, but the first migrant wildebeest might start to arrive (it all depends on rains and the state of the grass).

In short, all three months are excellent but each is different so it might be best to go with whatever just suits your timings better.

Stuart Butler
Answered by Stuart Butler
Question

I will be in Kenya in early March and am looking for a five day safari for wildlife photography and birdwatching. Where would you recommend for me noting it is the start of the rainy season?

P
Asked by Peter
Answer

Early March is still a bit early for the rainy season so you might just get the odd thunderstorm. If birds are your real interest and you only have five days then probably the easiest is to go down to the Masai Mara via the Rift Valley lakes of Naivasha and Elementia or Nakuru. This would give you a good range of avian habitats and species in a short space of time. Don't forget as well that Nairobi itself has some excellent birding in the various forests and parklands in and around the city. Plus of course, there's the superb Nairobi National Park where you will see a lot of wildlife and birds.

Stuart Butler
Answered by Stuart Butler

In this guide:

About the author

Safari in Kenya

Stuart Butler

Stuart is an award-winning travel journalist covering safari, trekking and conservation in Africa for the Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, BBC, Bradt Travel Guides, amongst many others. He is the author of Walking With The Maasai, a journey through some of Kenya's lesser-visited Maasai lands.

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