San Diego Zoo Builds Rhino Horn Bonfire

The high-profile destruction of $1 million worth of horns aims to bring attention to the plight the animals face because of poachers.

Rhino horns worth around $1 million were to be burned on Thursday at the San Diego Zoo in a bid to raise awareness about the endangered species decimated by poachers.

"This rhino horn burn sends the message to criminal networks and to rhino horn buyers that the United States will not tolerate illegal trade in rhino horn," Susie Ellis, the head of the International Rhino Foundation, said in a statement.

"The high demand for this commodity results in dire consequences for rhino species. Today's burn makes clear that confiscated horns should not be stockpiled, let alone traded."

The bonfire at the California zoo, which is home to 30 rhinos, comes as other zoos and private reserves around the world are increasingly holding similar high-profile events to shed light on the crisis facing rhinos.

Rhino horns can fetch thousands of dollars in East Asia due to their supposed medicinal qualities, fueling a boom in poaching and trafficking, particularly in Zimbabwe and South Africa.

Also believed to be an aphrodisiac, the horn is composed mainly of keratin, the same component as in human nails.

Kenya and Mozambique have already destroyed most of their rhino horn stockpile and conservationists are encouraging other governments to follow suit.

"With the increasing value of rhino horn, stockpiles present a high-value target for theft," Ellis said.

"In countries with limited resources to protect stockpiles, or with concerns about corruption, destroying horns can eliminate the risk of confiscated horn from entering the black market."

WATCH VIDEO: Can 3D-Printed Horns Save Rhinos?

Officials at the San Diego Zoo said that if the current rate of poaching continues, rhinos could become extinct within 15 years.

The San Diego stockpile came from various seizures carried out by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, officials said.

Thursday's event, the first of its kind in the United States, comes ahead of World Rhino Day on September 22.

VIEW PHOTOS: Dollar Values of Hunted African Animals

style="text-align: left;">The co-host of a hunting show on the Outdoor Channel recently spent $350,000 for the chance to hunt an endangered black rhinoceros in southern Africa. Corey Knowlton won the Dallas Safari Club's auction for a permit to hunt the rhino in Namibia. Knowlton says he and his family have received death threats after his name was made public through social media. "As much as I would love them all to live forever, they are going to die," Knowlton told CNN. "The older males are killing each other, and something has to be done about it."

style="text-align: left;">Nearly any animal can be legally killed in many parts of Africa, so long as the hunter pays the right amount of money. For rare and endangered species, the cost can escalate to many thousands of U.S. dollars.

style="text-align: left;">"National parks are obviously trying to make money," Johnny Rodrigues, Chairman for Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, told Discovery News. "The hunters have to pay the parks if they want to shoot the animals."

style="text-align: left;">It can be a Catch-22, since the parks often struggle to pay their staff, which include those who work to care for and protect the animals. The high price tag of a permit may serve as a deterrent, but it also reflects how much poachers can earn without even benefiting the parks.

style="text-align: left;">The payment needed to legally shoot an elephant drops to $50,000 in Zimbabwe, with a further loss of $10,000 if the elephant has no tusks. "The reason rhinos are more valuable than elephants is because the horn is so valuable and in such high demand by the Chinese," Rodrigues said.

style="text-align: left;">$20,000 can allow hunters with appropriate permits to kill several rare animals in many parts of Africa. Leopards are on that list, even though The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species lists them as "threatened."

style="text-align: left;">The price tag on lions is also $20,000. In terms of what happens to the dead animals, "As far as I know," Rodrigues said, "once the animals are hunted, they are exported to the hunter's home country." Upon arrival, the hunter may preserve the animal's dead body and put it on display.

style="text-align: left;">The cost to legally hunt a cheetah in Zimbabwe is $20,000. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species lists them as "vulnerable," but further mentions that "the known cheetah population is approximately 7,500-10,000 adult animals." In 1975, the number of cheetahs in Africa was estimated at 15,000, revealing that this species has significantly declined in only three generations.

style="text-align: left;">Majestic Roan antelopes also can be hunted for $20,000 in parts of Africa. While its population is more numerous than wild cats, this species has been eliminated from large parts of its former range, primarily due to poaching and habitat loss.

style="text-align: left;">The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species reports that sable antelopes possess "high value as a trophy animal."

style="text-align: left;">Sometimes the cost to hunt an animal differs if the target is male or female. That is the case for African buffalos, since males have larger horns than females do. The horn size difference costs a hunter an extra two grand to shoot a male African buffalo.

style="text-align: left;">A hunter must pay $5,000 to legally shoot a giraffe in Zimbabwe. The IUCN Red List reports that "a recent preliminary population estimate suggests a decline in the total population has taken place." While giraffes are currently listed as being animals of "least concern," that classification might soon change if the estimate is substantiated.

style="text-align: left;">On the less expensive side of the scale are flamingos, which cost only $100 to legally hunt in Zimbabwe. The value of this and the other animals to conservationists and other animal lovers comes without a price tag, however. To them, the animals are priceless. Nevertheless, by putting a price on the heads of animals, some national parks in Africa earn money that helps to fuel their operations. The biggest problem is poachers, who receive relatively light sentences for their crimes.

style="text-align: left;">Rodrigues explained, "The only thing a poacher would get if they trapped these animals is a jail sentence if they are caught."