Ex-professor ordered to pay fine for smuggling ivory

Published 10:05 am Tuesday, May 10, 2016

MINNEAPOLIS — A former Minnesota college professor was ordered Monday to pay a $500,000 fine for illegally smuggling items made of elephant ivory.

Yiwei Zheng, 43, of St. Cloud also was sentenced in federal court to three years probation, six weeks of intermittent confinement and 150 hours of community service. He could have faced up to about three years in prison.

Zheng was a philosophy professor at St. Cloud State University, about 65 miles northwest of Minneapolis. When he pleaded guilty in January, he acknowledged smuggling ivory carvings of potted flowers and other items from the U.S. to China in April 2011.

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He also admitted to illegally exporting two rhinoceros horns to China in July 2010 in violation of the U.S. Lacey Act, which bans trade in wildlife that has been illegally taken, transported or sold.

Prosecutors say Zheng smuggled elephant ivory, rhinoceros horn and other items worth more than $1 million.

“Those who engage in this illegal trade create demand, and a market for, the exploitation of endangered species such as black rhinoceros,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Laura Provinzino said in a statement. “This defendant helped to sustain this illegal market for years, engaging in more than 300 sales and earning more than $1 million. His profit was earned at the expense of these threatened and endangered species.”

Zheng had agreed to pay the fine, which will go into the Lacey Act Reward Fund. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service uses the fund to reward tipsters who provide information about wildlife crimes and to pay the costs of caring for fish, wildlife or plants being held as evidence in ongoing investigations.

Ed Grace, Fish and Wildlife deputy assistant director for law enforcement, said stopping illegal trade in ivory and rhino “continues to be a huge conservation priority for us.”

Zheng’s attorney, Tim Webb, has said his client has long traded in historical Chinese artifacts and authored books on Chinese trinkets. Webb said most of the items Zheng had were antiques and weren’t illegal in and of themselves, but that Zheng knowingly didn’t follow regulatory and permitting requirements to buy and transport some items. Webb said his client is remorseful and regrets his actions.

Zheng had taught at St. Cloud State since 1999. A school spokesman said Monday his employment there ended in March 2016.