MINNEAPOLIS (Reuters) - A Minnesota philosophy professor pleaded guilty on Wednesday to trafficking in rhinoceros horn and elephant ivory in violation of U.S. laws that protect endangered species, prosecutors said.
Yiwei Zheng, 43, a St. Cloud State University professor, was accused of importing and exporting horns and ivory and objects made from ivory, sometimes acquiring the items through online auctions and selling them to buyers in China, prosecutors said.
He could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison and fined $500,000. Sentencing is scheduled for May 9 in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis. U.S. law prohibits the import, export, transportation, purchase or sale of endangered species.
Zheng pleaded guilty to smuggling ivory from the United States to China in April 2011 and exporting rhino horns in July 2010, knowingly in violation of the endangered species act, prosecutors said.
"Cases like this are important to curb the market for rhinoceros horn and elephant ivory to help ensure the survival of those species across the globe," Assistant U.S. Attorney Laura Provinzino said in a statement.
Zheng operated an online business called Crouching Dragon Antiques in which some of the objects sold were made with ivory and rhino horn, prosecutors said.
The value of illegal transactions documented in the case was up to $1.5 million, prosecutors said.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers in Chicago identified a parcel in May 2011 that Zheng was shipping to Shanghai at a listed value of $35, prosecutors said. They said a wildlife inspector found that the package contained carvings from ivory and investigators determined that they were worth nearly $7,000.
Zheng also bought rhino horns from a person in Florida for more than $20,000 and sent them illegally to China, where they were sold at auction for about $68,000, prosecutors said.
Rhino horn sells at street prices higher than gold in Vietnam where a belief, which has no basis in science, has grown in the past few years that it can cure cancer.
Though the ivory trade is largely curbed globally, under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, an estimated 100,000 African elephants were killed by poachers between 2010 and 2012, according to a study by the National Academy of Sciences.
(Reporting by David Bailey in Minneapolis)