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Among the economic forces buffeting international relations, few Academic WorldQuest participants anticipated worrying about the price of rhino horn.

More than 300 high school students from across Montana came to Missoula for two days of study and competition on topics like North Korean negotiations, NATO’s future and how the price of oil affects multilateral trade. But they also got an unexpected side lesson in wildlife poaching delivered by biologist and Conservation Beyond Borders founder Nicole Benjamin-Fink.

“A 6-kilo rhino horn is worth between $65,000 and $100,000 on the black market,” Benjamin-Fink explained. “That money drives a revolving door of illegal arms sales and political instability.”

And it crosses borders. Benjamin-Fink added that sales of elephant ivory and rhino horn have been traced to bank accounts funding election fraud in Zimbabwe and terrorist organizations such as al-Shabab.

‘It’s a currency,” she said. “It really does impact all of us.”

Further complicating international relations, rhino horn feeds into a demand for sexual potency potions that have no basis in medical research, but still command huge prices in several Asian markets. A Vietnamese politician’s claim that rhino horn cured his cancer triggered a poaching slaughter in Africa that has pushed every species of the giant herbivore to the brink of extinction.

At the WorldQuest presentation, Browning High School senior Jhett Valandra said the poaching problem reminded him of the eradication of American plains bison at the end of the 19th century.

“Western culture just killed them off and piled up their skulls like mountains,” Valandra said of the systematic hunting that helped destroy the economic resource base of many Plains Indian tribes. “There was an economic reward for it, like poaching.”

Montana World Affairs Council Director Janet Rose explained the wildlife poaching issue fit into WorldQuest in surprising ways.

“It involves human trafficking, science, illegal black markets and borders,” Rose said. And anti-poaching efforts like Benjamin-Fink’s non-governmental organization show students the job opportunities in the field include film-making, biology and international relations.

The competition tests students’ awareness of current affairs, world leaders, geography, economics and culture. This year’s themes focused on the global refugee and migration crisis and space policy among other topics. The students also got to meet with diplomats from Japan and video-conference with Japanese students on Monday.

Japanese Consul General Yoichiro Yamada encouraged the participants to use travel as a way to see how other societies solve similar challenges like education and health care.

“American students already have much of what is needed to succeed and harmoniously pursue common interests,” Yamada said. “They are good at using their own brains and resources for research, and good at cooperating as a team. English is still commonly used throughout the world, but there are aspects of culture that can only be learned by mastering other languages. It would help Americans to learn other languages.”

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