Ranger Dan Robinson at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park considered it an honor to stir ashes Thursday at the Roar & Snore campground.

Safari Park Ranger Dan Robinson stirs ashes of rhino horns in first-ever burn of its kind in North America. Photo by Ken Stone

In the same rectangular fire pit where youngsters roast marshmallows for s’mores, $1 million in rhino horns and illegal products were burned in front of dozens of cameras.

“My boss told me I was doing it, and I said thank you,” Robinson said while using a 7-foot metal poker on the remains of 6-8 rhino horns worth $30,000 a pound. The eight-year veteran would stay for hours.

Some 140 people watched as officials from San Diego Zoo Global, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and other agencies emptied baskets of goods into the pit.

It was the first time rhino horns have been burned in North America, officials said. Public crushes of elephant ivory have taken place in Denver and New York’s Times Square, however.

Among those watching Thursday morning was Point Loma’s Catherine Stiefel, who called herself a “significant donor” to the Natural Resources Defense Council — a group she joined 10 or 12 years ago.

“This is really a tragic global issue,” she said of illegal wildlife trafficking. “I think that developed countries should do more about it. And listen to conservation organizations that are trying to reduce poaching and ivory trade.”

In recent years, Stiefel said, evidence has grown that destroying tusks and horns is much better at reducing the illegal trade than distributing artificial ivory.

“I think it’s a slow process to educate people that the animals are worth much more and we benefit much more by their survival than by misusing their parts,” she said. “The market is primarily in China and other Asian countries.”

Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, thanked the Safari Park for its rhino-saving efforts as well as San Diegans for supporting the zoo.

“I’m proud to stand here and take another step in the global fight against the epidemic of poaching and wildlife trafficking,” Ashe said. “In the past decade, we’ve witnessed the dramatic escalation in the scale of wildlife trafficking.”

He said 30,000 African elephants a year are killed for ivory, and in South Africa alone the poaching of rhinos went from 13 in 2007 to more than 1,000 in each of the past three years.

Director Dan Ashe of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service meets the press near rhino enclosure. Photo by Ken Stone

Since 2008, an estimated 6,000 African rhinos have been killed, leading to extinctions — all for the same material in fingernails and toenails — “and despite abundant evidence that it’s useless as medicine.”

But under Operation Crash, 43 busts have led to 30 convictions and $75 million in ivory seized, he said.

“Our goal is to change wildlife trafficking from low risk and high profit to an enterprise that is high in risk and low in profit.”

Daniel Foote, deputy assistant secretary of state, Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, came dressed to the nines on a warm day overlooking the area where rhinos roam.

“I think I’m the only bonehead here wearing a suit,” Foote said in an enviro-green tie. “This rhino horn burn demonstrates our commitment to end the tragic killing of rhinos and illegally trafficked wildlife.”

Where did the fire pit’s horns come from?

Some were seized from a Manhattan resident as part of Operation Crash, Times of San Diego was told. Another pair of horns came from an undercover sale from a Chinese national, now in prison.

Another interested witness was Jeanne Loring of The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla.

Her groundbreaking work with human stem cells at the Center for Regenerative Medicine is being applied to endangered species.

“So now we have these stem cells from rhinos and about 10 more animals,” Loring said. “Our hope is that we can make gametes out of them, sperm and eggs, and then from there it’s all downhill.”

It’s really very simple, she said.

“It’s just never been done before. We’re not Jurassic Park. We’re not [combining] a little bit of a frog with a bird. We want 100 percent rhino.”

The future of the horns burned Thursday is hopeful as well.

Once permits are acquired, officials said, the ashes will be taken back to their ancestral home — Africa.

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