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Criminal Gangs Are Smuggling Illegal Rhino Horns as Jewelry

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Valuable jewelry isn't always made from precious metals or gems. Wildlife smugglers in Africa are increasingly evading the law by disguising illegally harvested rhinoceros horns as wearable baubles and trinkets, according to a new study conducted by wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC.

As BBC News reports, TRAFFIC analyzed 456 wildlife seizure records—recorded between 2010 and June 2017—to trace illegal rhino horn trade routes and identify smuggling methods. In a report, the organization noted that criminals have disguised rhino horns in the past using all kinds of creative methods, including covering the parts with aluminum foil, coating them in wax, or smearing them with toothpaste or shampoo to mask the scent of decay. But as recent seizures in South Africa suggest, Chinese trafficking networks within the nation are now concealing the coveted product by shaping horns into beads, disks, bangles, necklaces, and other objects, like bowls and cups. The protrusions are also ground into powder and stored in bags along with horn bits and shavings.

"It's very worrying," Julian Rademeyer, a project leader with TRAFFIC, told BBC News. "Because if someone's walking through the airport wearing a necklace made of rhino horn, who is going to stop them? Police are looking for a piece of horn and whole horns."

Rhino horn is a hot commodity in Asia. The keratin parts have traditionally been ground up and used to make medicines for illnesses like rheumatism or cancer, although there's no scientific evidence that these treatments work. And in recent years, horn objects have become status symbols among wealthy men in countries like Vietnam.

"A large number of people prefer the powder, but there are those who use it for lucky charms,” Melville Saayman, a professor at South Africa's North-West University who studies the rhino horn trade, told ABC News. “So they would like a piece of the horn."

According to TRAFFIC, at least 1249 rhino horns—together weighing more than five tons—were seized globally between 2010 and June 2017. The majority of these rhino horn shipments originated in southern Africa, with the greatest demand coming from Vietnam and China. The product is mostly smuggled by air, but routes change and shift depending on border controls and law enforcement resources.

Conservationists warn that this booming illegal trade has led to a precipitous decline in Africa's rhinoceros population: At least 7100 of the nation's rhinos have been killed over the past decade, according to one estimate, and only around 25,000 remain today. Meanwhile, Save the Rhino International, a UK-based conservation charity, told BBC News that if current poaching trends continue, rhinos could go extinct in the wild within the next 10 years.

[h/t BBC News]

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VINCENZO PINTO, AFP, Getty Images
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This Just In
The Pope Just Officiated an Impromptu Inflight Wedding
VINCENZO PINTO, AFP, Getty Images
VINCENZO PINTO, AFP, Getty Images

Though he might be more famous for his tricked-out Popemobiles, when Pope Francis needs to get somewhere in a hurry, there’s always a papal plane. On Thursday, he made that Airbus 321 a vessel that one lucky couple will never forget when he officiated an impromptu marriage between Paula Podest and Carlos Ciuffardi, who have been together for more than 10 years and are both flight attendants for Chile's LATAM Airlines.

It started out innocently enough: on a flight from Santiago to Iquique, Chile, Crux reports, the flight crew was posing with the Pope for a group photo. When Papa Pancho asked the couple if they had had a church wedding, they explained that though they have been civilly married since 2010, the church that they were supposed to get married at was destroyed in an earthquake just a few days before their big day. Not one to let a little thing like being 35,000 feet in the air get in the way, Pope Francis suggested that he make up for their original plans and marry them right then and there.

“He held our hands, blessed the rings, and he married us in the name of God,” Ciuffardi told Crux.

His Holiness also made sure the happy couple knew how historic their nuptials would be. “Never has a pope married a couple on a plane,” he said.

Crew members Paula Podest (L) and Carlos Ciuffardi smile after being married by Pope Francis during the flight between Santiago and the northern city of Iquique on January 18, 2018
VINCENZO PINTO, AFP, Getty Images
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Courtesy of Gem Diamonds Ltd.
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This Just In
Fifth Largest Diamond in The World Discovered in Southern Africa
Courtesy of Gem Diamonds Ltd.
Courtesy of Gem Diamonds Ltd.

The Letšeng diamond mine in the southern African nation of Lesotho is known for producing large, high-quality gems. As Bloomberg reports, a massive diamond uncovered there recently is the mine's most impressive yet. The 910-carat stone is roughly the size of two golf balls and weighs more than a billiard ball.

The diamond is thought to be the fifth largest ever discovered on Earth. Gem Diamonds Ltd., the company behind the discovery, said in a statement [PDF] that the "exceptional top quality diamond is the largest to be mined to date and highlights the unsurpassed quality of the Letšeng mine."

Beyond its size, the diamond is also remarkable for its purity. The D color Type IIa status means there are little to no nitrogen atoms muddying its color. Though Gem Diamonds hasn't revealed their price, the diamond is likely worth a huge amount: up to $40 million, analyst Ben Davis tells Bloomberg.

That's a steep price, but it's nowhere near the highest ever paid for a diamond at auction. Rare colored diamonds tend to fetch the highest bids: In 2015, the Blue Moon diamond sold for $48.5 million, and in 2017 the Pink Star was auctioned off for $71.2 million, making it the most expensive diamond of all time.

[h/t Bloomberg]

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