MN professor admits smuggling ivory, rhino horns worth $1M

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A philosophy professor at St. Cloud State University has admitted smuggling elephant ivory and rhinoceros horns worth an estimated $1 million from the United States.

United States Attorney Andrew Luger announced Wednesday Yiwei Zheng (also known as Steve Zheng), 43, of St. Cloud, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to smuggling the ivory out of the U.S. into China in April 2011, and exporting two rhino horns in July 2010.

His actions were in violation of the 1900 Lacey Act – the first federal law protecting wildlife – as well as the Endangered Species Act.

An email news release from Luger reveals Zheng operated an online business called "Crouching Dragon Antiques" and sold a variety of items through the business, including the ivory and horns.

Investigators closed in on him after a parcel being exported from the U.S. was stopped at a mail facility in Chicago in May 2011 and was traced back to Zheng after it was found to contain a number of elephant carvings.

In the customs declaration, Zheng had described the contents as "Chinese artifact: Desk decorative item" valued at $35.

It was later found Zheng had bought the ivory through eBay and the actual value of the items was just short of $7,000.

Investigators later uncovered Zheng had bought the rhino horns from someone in Florida for more than $20,000 and smuggled them out of the country to China, where they were sold at auction for $68,000.

During the course of the investigation, agents estimate the value of the ivory, horns and other products smuggled into and out of the country by Zheng at more than $1 million, with Zheng agreeing in his plea agreement that the fair market value was likely between $550,000 and $1.5 million.

He faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $500,000. He will be sentenced at a later date.

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