Minn. Professor Pleads Guilty to Ivory Sales

     MINNEAPOLIS (CN) – A Minnesota University professor has pleaded guilty to trafficking in protected elephant ivory and rhinoceros horn, the Justice Department announced.
     According to an indictment and plea deal filed in the Minneapolis Federal Court on Wednesday, St. Cloud University philosophy professor Yiwei “Steven” Zheng, sold the items though an online side business called Crouching Dragon Antiques.
     Prosecutors said they learned of his activities in May 2011 after U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers came across a parcel at the international mail facility in Chicago that contained carved elephant ivory.
     The package was bound for Shanghai, China. Its customs declaration said it contained a decorative desk item worth only $35.
     Investigators later found the 43-year-old professor bought the items at an online eBay auction for $6,961.41.
     They also discovered Zheng previously bought two rhinoceros horns from a seller in Florida for $20,000, then turned around sold them at auction in China for $68,000.
     In the plea agreement, Zheng admitted that the value of the items was between $550,000 and $1.5 million.
     Both elephants and rhinos are protected under the Endangered Species Act, and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. In addition, under the Lacey Act passed in 1900, it is illegal to import, export, transport, sell or purchase species or their parts in violation of state, federal or foreign law.
     “This is another significant case which documents the extent of global wildlife trafficking and the pressure it places on the world’s most rare and endangered animals,” Ed Grace, the agency’s deputy assistant director for law enforcement said in a statement.
     “These types of investigations remain the top priority for us as we carry out the President’s National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking,” Grace said.
     According to the indictment, Zheng was charged with one count of conspiracy, two counts of smuggling and two counts of violations of the Lacey Act.
     He pleaded guilty to one count of smuggling and one count of Lacey Act violations, while the other three charges were dropped.
     Under the terms of the plea agreement, Zheng faces a maximum sentence of up to 10 years in prison and a fine up to $500,000.
     He is scheduled to be sentenced on May 9 before U.S. District Chief Judge John Tunheim.
     The case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Laura Provinzino.

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