Minnesota professor accused of smuggling elephant ivory

AP News
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Posted: Mar 31, 2015 5:57 PM

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A St. Cloud State University philosophy professor was arrested Tuesday on charges of conspiring to smuggle rhinoceros horns and elephant ivory out of the United States and into China.

Yiwei Zheng, who appeared in U.S. District Court Tuesday, faces a federal indictment accusing him of conspiracy, smuggling and making a false statement to agents. Zheng also is charged with violating the federal Lacey Act, which bans trade in wildlife, fish and plants that have been illegally taken, transported or sold.

Zheng, who has taught at St. Cloud State since 1999, was arrested by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents in St. Cloud, the Star Tribune reported. Zheng appeared in court, surrendered his passport and was released on $25,000 unsecured bond, according to a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office.

An email sent to Zheng's defense attorney for comment was not immediately returned Tuesday. A university spokesman said he can't comment due to the investigation.

The indictment alleges Zheng conspired with two unnamed co-conspirators in a scheme that ran from 2006 through 2011. The two co-conspirators are not named as defendants.

According to the indictment, the black rhinoceros is listed as an engendered species and international trade in elephant ivory is largely banned. Trade in rhinoceros horn and elephant ivory has been regulated by an international treaty since 1976. Any animal species listed as protected under the treaty cannot be legally exported from the U.S. without approval from the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Zheng, who grew up in Shanghai, China, is accused of importing into the U.S. objects made from rhinoceros horn from his co-conspirators in China. Demand for libation cups and other ornamental carvings made of rhinoceros horn has resulted in a thriving black market and has pushed most species of rhinoceros to the brink of extinction, the indictment said.

The indictment also alleges Zheng smuggled objects made from rhinoceros horn and elephant ivory from the United States to China by using the U.S. mail. Among the items Zheng is accused of smuggling to China in April 2011 are potted flower carvings, a fan and a carved lion all made with elephant ivory.

Zheng also is accused of facilitating the sale in March 2010 of a rhinoceros horn libation cup that was fraudulently imported into the U.S. and of exporting two rhinoceros horns in July 2010.

In September 2011, the indictment alleges, Zheng told agents he had sold two rhinoceros horns to a Chinese national named Mr. Zhang at a McDonald's restaurant in St. Cloud. In fact, Zheng knew that he had illegally sent to the rhino horns from the U.S. to China, the indictment said.

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