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Remote wildlife tracking

Lauren Connell
The Sloth Institute of Costa Rica
1/28/2015

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Contents
Summary ....................................................................................................................................................... 1
List of Tables and Figures .............................................................................................................................. 2
Definitions, Abbreviations and Acronyms .................................................................................................... 2
Remote Tracking of Wildlife An Overview ................................................................................................. 3
VHF tracking .............................................................................................................................................. 3
GPS tracking .............................................................................................................................................. 4
Platform Terminal Transmitter (PTT) ........................................................................................................ 4
Telemetry methods................................................................................................................................... 5
Published Works ....................................................................................................................................... 6
Benefits of Tracking Wildlife ......................................................................................................................... 6
Data goals.................................................................................................................................................. 6
A brief overview of GIS and its role in sloth conservation ........................................................................ 7
Technologies for Wildlife Tracking ................................................................................................................ 7
Questions before Purchasing GPS............................................................................................................. 7
Constraints and Considerations of Tracking ............................................................................................. 8
Cost estimates of units, receivers and software ........................................................................................... 9
Other Technologies for Remote Tracking of Sloths .................................................................................... 11
Do It Yourself GPS/VHF tracking collar ................................................................................................... 11
Do It Yourself GPS/VHF data transmitting collar .................................................................................... 11
Break-away collars .................................................................................................................................. 11
Sensors .................................................................................................................................................... 11
Conclusions ................................................................................................................................................. 12
Works Cited ................................................................................................................................................. 13

Summary
This paper was created for internal purposes to inform The Sloth Institute of current wildlife
tracking technologies, identify data needs and goals, review the functionality and specifications
of current technologies, and present estimated costs of equipment purchase. This information
should allow The Sloth Institute to select a remote tracking system which meets its research
needs and budget.
Remote tracking of wildlife is the practice of installing a tracking mechanism on an animal to
identify its location. Advantages of remotely tracking wildlife include time and cost savings
associated with manual monitoring, tracking of location through rugged or inaccessible terrain,
and decreases in disturbance of normal animal behavior. There are three forms of remote wildlife
tracking technologies in use today: radio transmission across very high frequencies (VHF),
satellite tracking, and global positioning systems (GPS) tracking. Todays wildlife tracking
equipment is capable of recording spatial location at any specified interval and wirelessly
broadcast the data to a receiving device. This technology, known as telemetry, is beneficial for
both researchers and study animals by decreasing the frequency of animal capture for the
purposes of data download.
This investigation has resulted in two conclusions: (1) VHF technologies will be required
regardless off additional tracking features to allow personnel to locate the sloths for data
download and instrumentation retrieval at the studys conclusion; and (2) GPS is the only
locational technology capable of automating and recording location information to the precision
necessary for sloth tracking. Table 1 identifies three tracking methods and prioritized them by
fundraising success.
Following the identification of the most appropriate tracking system, further research will be
necessary to evaluate equipment specifications in greater detail and create protocol
procedures for the installation and recovery of tracking equipment and data retrieval.

Table 1: Features of tracking equipment, ranked by affordability


Equipment

Start-Up Cost
+ 1 unit

Cost of Each
Add. Units

Supplemental
Equipment

Data Retrieval

Tier 1

VHF Tracker

$1,504

$245

Handheld GPS

Tier 2

DIY* VHF/GPS

$1,537

$300

Tier 3

Telemetry
Solutions
VHF/GPS**

$4,237

$2,500

Minor purchases
for building collar
VHF antenna and
receiver costs
estimated

Passive location manually


recording with GPS
Recapture manual
download
Passive GPS telemetry

*DIY Do It Yourself tracking mechanism which can be built by the user for minimal cost
**Equipment weighs 35 grams, is custom designed for sloth needs and allows for telemetered data transfer.

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List of Tables and Figures


Table 1:

Features and affordability of tracking equipment, ranked by affordability

Table 2:

Summary of tracking equipment, features and cost

Figure 1:

Radio frequencies and range

Figure 2:

ARGOS location classes (accuracy)

Definitions, Abbreviations and Acronyms

Biotelemetry the use of Global Positioning Systems (GPS) to remotely track the
movement and behavior of animals. Telemetry refers to the wireless transfer of data.
Fix - refers to the global positioning systems successful calculation of current location.
Each fix refers to one data record. This phrase is often used interchangeably with
hit.
GIS Geographic Information System a computer system designed to capture, store,
manipulate, analyze, manage and present all spatial data.
GPS Global Positioning System Space-based satellite navigation system that provides
location and time information utilizing satellites. The GPS device must have an
unobstructed line of site of at least four satellites in order to function.
Hit refers to the global positioning systems successful calculation of current location.
Each hit refers to one data record. This phrase is often used interchangeably with
fix.
Telemetry the wireless transfer of data
VHF Very High Frequency The range of radio frequency electromagnetic waves from
30-300 MHz. Common uses include FM radio, television broadcasting, long-range data
communication (marine, terrestrial, aerial).

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Remote Tracking of Wildlife An Overview


Wildlife tracking involves acquiring information about the location and movement of animals to
discern behavior and habitat use in the wild. Tracking of wildlife movements and patterns
through the installation of remote technologies allows for the assimilation of information by
analyzing its location in time to elucidate behavioral patterns, spatial movement and distribution.
This information is recorded with remote tracking technologies (GPS, radio VHF, or satellite) and
can either be downloaded from the tracking unit or transmitted with telemetry through radio
waves or cellular service. Remote tracking involves determining where an animal is, and
telemetry refers to wireless transfer of data that can be used to infer its activity, at certain points
in time.
Several distinct types of remote tracking are currently in use for tracking wildlife movements:
(1) VHF (very high frequency) radio-tracking; (2) GPS tracking (global positioning system); (3)
satellite tracking using the Argos system; and (4) a combination of the advantages of GPS and
the Argos satellites into a GPS/satellite telemetry method.

VHF tracking
Very High Frequency tracking (VHF), is the traditional method in use since the mid-1960s. The
VHF transmitter emits a radio signal into the air and is received using a hand-held antenna. The
location of the transmitter is usually determined by acquiring the transmissions from three or
more different locations to triangulate the location of the device. The range of radio frequency
electromagnetic waves from 30-300 MHz. Common uses include FM radio, television
broadcasting, long-range data communication (marine, terrestrial, aerial) (Fig 1).
The deployment and utilization of a VHF
transmitter, receiver and antenna is required to
locate sloths in real time in the wild, regardless of
any additional equipment, such as a GPS.
Research has confirmed that a VHF antenna and
receiver can be used across models or brands as
long as they are designed to operate on the same
range of frequency. This means the purchase of
equipment can be viewed as a long-term
investment, as the equipment can be used and
deployed again in the future.
Figure 1: Radio frequencies and range

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GPS tracking
Geographic positioning system (GPS) is the most accurate form of tracking. The GPS transmitter
requires unobstructed signal from four or more satellites to calculate its location. The U.S.
Department of Defense launched 24 satellites, which are unique from other deployed satellites
(i.e. Argos satellites) because their high count allows for high locational accuracy. The successful
calculation of location is often referred to as a hit or fix, meaning the GPS unit was able to
successfully receive a signal from four or more satellites to calculate a single locational point in
time. The GPS receiver logs the location (also known as store onboard) and time of the animal
on the device until it is either: (1) retrieved by recapturing the animal for data download, or (2)
wirelessly transmitted by telemetry (radio or cellular broadcasting).

Platform Terminal Transmitter (PTT)


A Platform Terminal Transmitter, also known as a PTT, is a small satellite transmitter that
transmits GPS data remotely using the ARGOS satellite system. Whereas GPS units receive
signal from a satellite to calculate its location, PTTs broadcast their signal to satellites and their
location is calculated and broadcasted back to the unit. Two satellites are needed to calculate
the location. This minimal requirement is one of the reasons PTTs are less accurate than GPS
units, which require four or more satellites. Additionally, the need to constantly deploy a signal
to satellites requires more energy for this unit than other methods. For these reasons, PTT
technologies are not suitable for tracking sloths in the wild.
Argos is a satellite-based location and data collection system dedicated to monitoring and
protecting the environment. It was launched in 1978 with the assistance of the National
Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and
Space Administration (NASA). A PTT device must be used in conjunction with Argos, and
requires a subscription, which varies in price depending on data delivery method. The costs
associated with the Argos PTT tracking method ranges from $133/month per unit to $0.14 per
kilobyte of data sent to an email address or File Transfer Protocol (FTP) site.
The location of the transmitter is calculated and accuracy is determined as one of 5 different
classes called location classes. Accuracy of individual locations received from the ARGOS system
vary depending on the number of messages received from the transmitter, environmental
conditions and relative positions of the transmitter and satellites. As exemplified by Figure 2:
Argos location classes (accuracy), this method is less accurate than GPS (which are accurate
within 10-15m, 95% percent of the time) and resulting data is not ideal for sloth tracking as it
would be too coarse to track small location changes.

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Telemetry methods
Telemetry, or the ability to wireless transmit data, is highly desirable for tracking sloths. Traditional
methods of tracking require the use of VHF to manually locate the animal and either record its location
or recapture the animal to download data. These methods can be extremely intensive on personnel, and
stressful to the animal, especially if recapture is required to bring a sloth down from the trees for data
download. Additionally, without frequent data downloading there is an inherent risk of equipment
malfunction that could compromise data collection. For these reasons, telemetered GPS data is
considered ideal for tracking sloths.
There are three types of telemetered GPS technologies: GSM, radio waves or satellite. GSM employs the
use of cellular service to transmit location information to a receiving device such as email, tracking
program or File Transfer Protocol (FTP) site. The use of GSM telemetry requires an airtime

subscription and cellular service. The largest constraint of GSM technology is ensuring cellular
network reception in the study area. Similarly, transmitting the GPS locations through radio
waves requires a portable receiver to be within the devices range of transmission. To ensure
reception within this range, a receiving unit must deployed in the study area, which is an
additional infrastructure cost. GPS data can then be download from the receiver without
necessitating animal recapture. Finally, ARGOS may be used to broadcast GPS information
between satellites and a computer program for data reports. This method requires a
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subscription to ARGOS, use of a customized computer program (which may be an additional


cost) and requires more energy than other units.

Published Works
The USGS publication, A Critique of Wildlife Radio-tracking and its Use in National Parks1, offers
a thorough yet concise review of current technologies and their advantages and disadvantages.
Highlights of this work include:

A comprehensive review of technologies which incorporates and is supported by 50+


scientific publications and studies;
Considerations for equipment selection in regards to data analysis, bias and other
considerations for analytical analysis of location information; and
An unofficial rule that remote tracking technology weigh no more than 5% of the animals
body weight. However, multiple studies examining the effects of tracking collars on small
mammals (rabbits, voles, lemmings, bats) revealed that tracking equipment 5% of the
animals body weight caused adverse effects on maneuverability, foraging and survival.

Benefits of Tracking Wildlife


The collection of discrete locational data of the sloths movements over time will allow for the
assimilation and evaluation of spatial movement patterns, habitat preference, resource
selection, mating preferences and mortality. This information can then be used to infer patterns
of habitat utilization, demography, and behavioral energetics and ultimately, predictive
population modeling of population trajectories to focus and steer conservation efforts.

Data goals
To perform the above-referenced analysis of sloths in the wild, appropriate equipment will be
necessary to collect discrete data. Below is a list of specific data goals of the sloth remote tracking
project:

Collect discrete information of sloth location over time. In order to maximize battery life
of a GPS collar, units should be programmed to acquire fixes approximately 4-6 times per
day.
The data should be communicated back to TSI through telemetry or data download.
Telemetry is less intrusive and disruptive to the sloth but may be cost prohibitive. Data

Mech, L. David, and Shannon M. Barber. 2002. A critique of wildlife radio-tracking and its use in national parks: a report to the U.S. National
Park Service. U.S. Geological Survey, Northern
Prairie Wildlife Research Center, Jamestown, N.D. Jamestown, ND: Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center Online.
http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/wildlife/radiotrk/index.htm (Version 30DEC2002).

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download will be necessary at the end of battery life or at the end of the study period
whichever occurs first and can be stored onboard until that time.
The data should be collected for a minimum of six months, not accounting for mortality.
Remote tracking collars should be deployed on all TSI sloths released into the wild and on
existing wild sloths. The data should be analyzed to compare habits and demography
between the two sets.
The data should be analyzed on a Geographic Information Science Platform to allow for
spatio-temporal analysis of movement patterns.
The data should be shared with scientific researchers for analysis, population modeling
and other research. The findings of this collaboration should be published in peerreviewed, scientific journals.

A brief overview of GIS and its role in sloth conservation


Geographic Information Science (GIS) is a computer-based technology which allows for the
dynamic analysis of discrete data over space and time. GIS is capable of storing vast amounts of
data regarding each record, thus serving as a database and mapping system in one. For example,
one data record from a sloths activity could place it at a particular tree at one discrete date and
time. GIS software is capable of organizing, maintaining and analyzing other associated data, such
as the canopy height, recorded ambient temperature, recorded ambient humidity, and other
environmental factors which were recorded alongside the sloths location by the GPS unit. This
information can be combined with other outside sources of information, such as tree species,
tree age, elevation, land use features (national parks, private lands, agriculture, etc.), soil type,
distance from roadways, predator territories, other sloths, etc. Further evaluation of this data, in
combination with other population data on a larger scale, can lead to the analysis and prediction
of demography and population success.
For a brief and general overview of GIS and its capabilities, visit this helpful video:
http://youtu.be/kEaMzPo1Q7Q

Technologies for Wildlife Tracking


Questions before Purchasing GPS
1. What will the product actually do?
After selecting a GPS model, decide the frequency of data collection and the duration of
the study to determine the projected battery life. The battery life will change depending
on these decisions and may be less than originally advertised.
2. Is the product about to reach end of life status in the product line?

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Is the GPS model you selected about to be discontinued or a new product released? If
so, find out why it is being discontinued and if your selected product will continue to be
supported but the manufacturer.
3. What kind of customer support is provided after the purchase and who is providing it?
Will the manufacturer provide customer support? Is the duration of customer support
limited from the date of purchase? Will customer support be outsourced?
4. Can you please send me a copy of the user manual?
Nothing lets you get to know equipment, its features, requirements and user-friendly
programming like the user manual!
5. Does the company know your study plan? Do they feel their equipment will meet your
needs?
Speaking to the manufacturer about your study plan can make a big difference in the
final product you order. Often times the sales representatives have experience with
wildlife tracking programs and can offer insights or even assist in the development of
the study or its techniques.

Constraints and Considerations of Tracking


-

Cost (both per unit and for start-up equipment)


Weight (< 5% of animal body weight)
Size
Data collection method and frequency:
o Is recapture of the animal necessary to download the data?
o If recapture for data download is not required how long will tracking unit stay
on animal? What is the long-term vision?
Storage capability of GPS unit
How will equipment be recovered at the end of the study (including recovery from wild
sloths)?

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Cost estimates of units, receivers and software


Table 2: Summary of Tracking Features, Equipment and Cost
VHF Tracking
Manufacturer

Telonics

Data
Access

Model No.

N/A

Weight
(g)

% of BW
(Kermie)

75

2.5%

Recharchable
Battery?

Battery Life

Unit Cost

Additional
Equipment

Additional
Equipment Cost

Initial Cost
(1 unit + Add.
Equipment)

TOTAL Cost - 2
units

1.5 years

$245

(Antenna &
Receiver) +
Mortality Sensor

$1,259

$1,504

$1,749

$3,135

$3,334

$3,149

$3,362

$3,171

$3,406

$3,139

$3,342

$3,139

$3,342

$3,139

$3,342

Initial Cost
(1 unit + Add.
Equipment)

TOTAL Cost - 2
units

$2,850

$5,250

$2,850

$5,250

$2,850

$5,250

MOD-210 VHF

SirTrack($)

N/A

V5C 163A

31

1.0%

9-13 months

$199

N/A

VSC 164A

37

1.2%

12-18 months

$213

N/A

V5C 173A

79

2.6%

1.6-2.4 yrs

$235

N/A

V2G 152C

13

0.4%

6.5 months

$203

N/A

V2G 154A

16

0.5%

14 months

$203

N/A

V2G 154B

18

0.6%

14 months

$203

Data
Access

Model No.

Weight
(g)

% of BW
(Kermie)

Recharchable
Battery (Y/N)

Battery Life (max)

Unit Cost

modified FELIS

120

4.0%

Antenna +
Receiver
(waterproof,
good range &
sensitive)

$2,936

GPS Tracking
Manufacturer

North Star ST

GSM
(cellular)
GSM
(cellular)
GSM
(cellular)

modified LYNX

170

5.7%

Not specified

60

2.0%

(solar)

Solar + back-up
battery
Solar + back-up
battery
N/A

Additional
Equipment

$2,400
$2,400

GSM cellular
service - 6
fixes/day

$2,400

*GPS loggers require capture of sloth for data download. Optional 'break-away' collar is prohibitive due to additional weight and requirement of 2-inch thick collar.
Can be sent back to manufacturer for battery replacement without voiding warranty
Cost estimated based on Telonics cost for equipment

Breakdown of individual equipment cost in supporting Excel workbook

($)SirTrack VHF transmitters are quoted in Canadian dollars. US pricing will be lower

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Additional
Equipment Cost

$450

Continued: Table 2: Summary of Tracking Features, Equipment and Cost


VHF and GPS
Manufacturer

Data
Access

Model No.

Weight
(g)

Telonics

GPS
logger*

Telemetry
Systems

GPS
Remote
streaming
& VHF

Custom
design

35

DIY Collar

GPS
logger*

Custom
design

90

TGW-4200-2

145

% of BW
(Kermie)

Recharchable
Battery (Y/N)

Battery Life (max)

Unit Cost

Additional
Equipment

Additional
Equipment Cost

Initial Cost
(1 unit + Add.
Equipment)

TOTAL Cost - 2
units

$1,700

(Antenna &
Receiver)
software, cable
& adapter for
data download

$1,892

$3,592

$5,292

$1,737

$4,237

$6,737

$1,237

$1,537

$1,837

1 year (8
fixes/day)

1.2%

Regular: 6 month
(4 fixes/day)
Rechargeable: 2
months (4
fixes/day)

$2,500

(Antenna &
receiver) & base
station (data
downloader)

3.0%

GPS: 1 fix/hr, 40
days; VHF: 15
mos.

$300

Antenna &
Receiver

4.8%

*GPS loggers require capture of sloth for data download. Optional 'break-away' collar is prohibitive due to additional weight and requirement of 2-inch thick collar.
Can be sent back to manufacturer for battery replacement without voiding warranty
Cost estimated based on Telonics cost for equipment

Breakdown of individual equipment cost in supporting Excel workbook

($)SirTrack VHF transmitters are quoted in Canadian dollars. US pricing will be lower

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Other Technologies for Remote Tracking of Sloths


Do It Yourself GPS/VHF tracking collar
This method was pioneered by Blake Allen, PhD candidate at Deakin University. It comes with a
list of materials and step-by-step video tutorial to create your own. This method allows for
manual tracking of the sloth with VHF and the on-board storing of GPS locations. The collar
weighs 90 grams when finished and can last up to 40 days if one fix is acquired per hour. It is
anticipated this battery life can be extended if the unit is programmed to record with less
frequency. The limitations of this unit are that it requires recapture of sloths to download the
GPS waypoints. However, this recapture and data download are only required to occur once at
the conclusion of the study.
http://youtu.be/UaSvS0grVjw

Do It Yourself GPS/VHF data transmitting collar


Blake Allen is also in the midst of pioneering another tracking mechanism with all of the
functionality stated above but this version modifies a cat-tracker currently on the market which
can be modified similarly to the above GPS collar but is capable of producing live transmission
to cell phone or internet. The GPS can send its position automatically or upon request. Blake
has stated his interest in partnering with The Sloth Institute to conduct a pilot study of this
technology on the sloths. The results of the study would result in a scientific publication and
could be very advantageous for The Sloth Institute. Their website says it requires annual service
pack: http://www.mr-lee-catcam.de/pe_cc_i18.htm

Break-away collars (activated by timer or radio)


Break-away collars are an additional feature that are designed to hold two ends of a collar
together until a designated break event, at which time the mechanism releases and the collar
falls off the animal. This feature is advantageous when monitoring hard-to-capture wildlife, such
as sloths. It can be pre-programmed to break at a designated date and time. There is some drift
in accuracy (approximately 11 minutes) each year the break-away collar is deployed. Additional
information can be found here: http://www.lotek.com/dropoff.htm . After speaking with
founder and president of Telonics, it appears this feature is prohibitive due to the additional
weight and the requirement of a 2-inch wide collar.

Sensors

Mortality sensors
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Ambient temperature

I have not come across any sensors that examine sloth body temperature, heart rate, etc.

Conclusions
The technology to remotely track sloths in the wild exists with the weight, battery and telemetry
capabilities ideal for monitoring of sloths. Indeed, there are many options at an assortment of
sophistication and costs available to choose from, with cost being the prohibitive factor.
At a minimum, VHF tracking is necessary and the purchase of this hardware would satisfy the
minimum needs of The Sloth Institute. This method will require the minimum of a VHF
transmitter collar, receiver, antenna and handheld GPS unit. It is requires more personnel time
and requires the successful location of the sloth(s) at each attempt in order to record the location
in the GPS unit.
There are several considerations to take into account when deciding on a GPS tracking unit.
Investigations have revealed that the more frequently GPS units record the sloths location, the
shorter the units battery life. Limiting fixes to 4-6 times a day will extend battery life.
Consultation with wildlife tracking manufactures reveal the canopy cover of the sloths habitat
should not interfere with GPS satellite signal if properly placed on the sloths (i.e. sideways instead
of top or bottom of neck). When choosing a method for telemetry download, one must purchase
a compatible receiver from the manufacturer or purchase a unit that is compatible with satellite
(requires software purchase) or cellular network (requires cellular signal in the jungle).
Regardless of these considerations, the main constraint when choosing an equipment hardware
package is cost.
It would be ideal for a collar to broadcast its waypoints through telemetry. It is in The Sloth
Institutes best interests to create a diverse range of tracking options so that, depending on
fundraising success, a method can be selected and deployed without delay. None of the tracking
manufacturers contacted were interested in cost sharing or donating their products.

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Works Cited
1. History of Wildlife Tracking, 2014. Wikipedia.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Wildlife_Tracking_Technology
2. Mech, L. David, and Shannon M. Barber. 2002. A critique of wildlife radio-tracking and
its use in national parks: a report to the U.S. National Park Service. U.S. Geological
Survey, Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center, Jamestown, N.D. Jamestown, ND:
Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center Online.
http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/wildlife/radiotrk/index.htm (Version 30DEC2002).
3. Demonstration of Satellite/GPS Telemetry for Monitoring Fine-Scale Movements of
Lesser Prairie-Chickens. United States Department of Agriculture, United States Forest
Service.
http://www.fs.fed.us/td/programs/im/satellite_gps_telemetry/wildlifetrackingtelement
ry.htm
4. Argos Satellite System, 2013. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argos_system
5. Figure 1: Radio frequencies and ranges:
http://radiofreeq.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/average_radio_range_base_vehicle_2.j
pg
6. ARGOS location classes.
http://www.argos-system.org/manual/3-location/34_location_classes.htm

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