The World Today for September 28, 2021

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NEED TO KNOW

Move Over, Ivory

SOUTH AFRICA

South Africa extradited a South Korean citizen to the US last year for trafficking in unlikely contraband: the fascinating, fleshy and sometimes flowery plants known as succulents. The criminal recently pled guilty to illegally harvesting $600,000 worth of Dudleya plants from state parks in California, according to the US Department of Justice.

As VICE News explained, the South Korean man, Byungsu Kim, escaped to Mexico when he discovered the feds were after him, traveled to China and then was arrested in South Africa after police caught him in another harvesting operation.

The case underscores how the illicit trade in succulents is an international problem, wrote Modern Farmer. The plants’ stalks are engorged because they fill with water, making them pretty houseplants that require little maintenance and irregular watering. Buying a succulent in a store or nursery likely won’t contribute to the problem, the Evening Standard, a London-based newspaper, wrote. But rare succulents are especially sought after in Asia. Many of those rare species are now endangered as a result.

Social media is driving the disaster. More than 3.5 billion people have viewed posts using the #PlantTikTok while Instagram users have posted 12.2 million images with the #succulents keyword, noted Business Insider.

In China, online influencers who showcase succulents have developed a massive following which fuels demand for the rare plants. “Hundreds of thousands of people are logging on daily to admire these vegetating celebrities, oohing as chattering hosts turn and twirl them around, showing off blushes of new color, entire centimeters of growth, or – what a treat! – some velvety new leaves,” the Washington Post reported.

South Africa, home to a third of all succulent species, is perhaps suffering more than most countries. Demand for the plants skyrocketed during the coronavirus pandemic when eager Asian buyers and others teamed up with impoverished South Africans who provide the GPS coordinates of succulent clusters to smugglers willing to risk arrest while digging up the plants, the New York Times reported.

Now the succulents in South Africa are in danger of disappearing, wrote the Guardian. The British newspaper cited a scientific study that estimated that 85 percent of Pearson’s aloe in the Richtersveld region has disappeared in the past five years due to poaching as well as climate change, especially drought.

Officials are trying to crack down on the trade. Last year, a South African court sentenced an American citizen to a suspended sentence of two years in jail and banned him from the country for seeking to traffic protected succulents, the Independent Online wrote.

Few smugglers appear to have gotten the message.

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

Auf wiedersehen, Mutti

GERMANY

The center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) won a narrow victory over outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives, knocking her party out of power for the first time in almost 16 years, the Financial Times reported Monday.

The SPD received 25.7 percent of the vote, a 5 percent increase in support over prior elections in 2017. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its sister party Christian Socialist Union (CSU)won 24.1 percent, the worst results nationally in its history.

Meanwhile, the Greens became the third-largest party with 14.8 percent, followed by the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) which won 11.5 percent.

Following the release of the final results, SPD chancellor candidate, Olaf Scholz, said he would seek to form a coalition with the Greens and FDP. The negotiations could last for weeks.

The election results mark the beginning of the post-Merkel era for Germany: The chancellor, who had governed for 16 years and was known as Mutti (German for mommy), said in 2018 that she would step down following the 2021 elections. Earlier this year, the CDU picked Armin Laschet as her potential successor.

Merkel’s exit is likely to have influenced the CDU’s poor showing in the polls: Millions of voters likely voted for her but had little allegiance to the CDU/CSU.

Meanwhile, Laschet said that his party would try to form a coalition with the Greens and FDP. The German constitution does not dictate that the chancellor has to belong to the largest parliamentary group.

Politico noted that the chances of another SPD-CDU/CSU grand coalition are slim because both parties have said they don’t want to share power again.

Microstate, Macro Issues

SAN MARINO

The European microstate of San Marino overwhelmingly voted to legalize abortion under certain circumstances following a Sunday referendum in the predominately Catholic republic, CNN reported Monday.

More than 77 percent of voters approved measures that would make abortion legal in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. The changes would also allow women to get abortions beyond 12 weeks if the pregnancy threatens their life or if anomalies and malformations of the fetus pose health risks to the mother.

The referendum overturns a previous law dating back to 1865. Under those rules, women in San Marino risked three years in jail if they ended their pregnancy. That sentence is doubled for anyone performing the abortion.

Before the referendum, women traveled to neighboring Italy to get the procedure, which could cost up to $2,000 plus travel expenses.

CNN noted how social progress for women has been very slow in the Italian enclave of 33,000 people: Women were only given the right to vote in the early 1960s and couldn’t hold political office until 1973. Divorce was legalized in 1986 – about 16 years after Italy.

Elephants and Rooms

WORLD

Leaders from the United States, India, Japan and Australia emphasized their commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific region during the Quad Leaders Summit in Washington D.C this week, which observers say is aimed at countering China’s increasingly aggressive moves in the region, CNBC reported Monday.

In a joint statement, the four countries pledged to promote an Indo-Pacific region that is “undaunted by coercion,” without explicitly mentioning China. They also announced new initiatives for the region which include the donation of more than 1.2 billion Covid-19 vaccines globally and measures to combat climate change.

The event is tied to the alliance known as Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – or Quad – which some analysts view as an anti-China partnership even though China is never named or mentioned.

The four countries have taken part in joint naval exercises and boosted defense partnerships with each other. Although it has not explicitly named China in its public statements, the alliance’s initiatives are seen as a way of curbing Beijing’s influence in the Indo-Pacific.

In recent years, China has increased its naval activity in the East China Sea and the South China Sea. It is also trying to expand its global influence through the Belt and Road Initiative by building rail and maritime trade routes to connect China with Central Asia, Europe and Africa.

Ahead of the Quad meeting, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhao Lijian said that the alliance “will find no support and is doomed to fail.”

DISCOVERIES

Follow the Beat

Scientists recently conducted a series of experiments to determine how storytelling plays with our hearts, Cosmos Magazine reported.

In a new study, they discovered that a compelling story can synchronize the heart rates of the storyteller and the listener – even if the latter is listening by themselves.

“It’s the cognitive function that drives your heart rate up or down,” said co-author Lucas Parra.

In one experiment, Parra and his team measured the heart rates of volunteers listening to an audiobook of Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” They noted that most participants showed increases and decrease in heart rates at the same points in the story.

Another experiment revealed that this synchronization dropped when listeners didn’t pay attention to the story – this time an instructional video. This suggests that emotional engagement has no role in heart rate fluctuations.

In the third experiment, volunteers listened to short stories for children, with some participants paying attention and others being distracted. When they were quizzed about the story, the individuals who could correctly answer questions – those who paid attention – had more synchronized heart rates.

In their final experiment, researchers recreated a similar setting to the first but included both healthy volunteers and patients in a coma or persistent vegetative state. Results showed that those latter patients had low synchronization rates but showed increased rates once they regained consciousness.

Parra believes that the findings can help understand the effect of mindfulness practices and the brain-body connection.

COVID-19 Global Update

Total Cases Worldwide: 232,360,045

Total Deaths Worldwide: 4,756,701

Total Vaccinations Worldwide: 6,128,514,746

Countries with the highest number of confirmed cases worldwide as of 4 a.m. ET*

  1. US: 43,116,448 (+0.43%)
  2. India: 33,697,581 (+0.06%)
  3. Brazil: 21,366,395 (+0.07%)
  4. UK: 7,737,941 (+0.49%)
  5. Russia: 7,334,843 (+0.30%)
  6. France: 7,087,110 (+0.02%)
  7. Turkey: 7,066,658 (+0.39%)
  8. Iran: 5,547,990 (+0.26%)
  9. Argentina: 5,251,940 (+0.03%)
  10. Colombia: 4,952,690 (+0.02%)

Source: Johns Hopkins University

*Numbers change over 24 hours

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