Ex-Minnesota college professor fined $500,000 for smuggling ivory

A former Minnesota philosophy professor was fined $500,000 on Monday for smuggling elephant ivory and illegally exporting rhinoceros horns from the United States to China, prosecutors said.

Yiwei Zheng, 43, a former St. Cloud State University professor, was also sentenced to three years’ probation and 150 hours of community service by U.S. District Judge John R. Tunheim in Minneapolis, prosecutors said.

The fine is to be paid to the Lacey Act Reward Fund, which is used by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reward those who provide information about wildlife crimes and to care for animals held as evidence in ongoing probes.

Zheng’s attorney, Timothy Webb, said the sentence, under which his client also will spend six weekends in jail, was fair.

His employment with St. Cloud State University ended in March, said Adam Hammer, a spokesman for the school.

Zheng A Chinese-American also known as Steve Zheng, pleaded guilty in January to smuggling ivory from the United States to China in April 2011 and exporting rhino horns in July 2010, in violation of the endangered species act.

“This defendant helped to sustain this illegal market for years, engaging in more than 300 sales and earning more than $1 million,” Assistant United States Attorney Laura Provinzino said in a statement. “His profit was earned at the expense of these threatened and endangered species.”

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 illegal items Zheng smuggled into and out of the United States were worth as much as $1.5 million, prosecutors said.

Rhino horn sells at prices higher than gold in places such as Vietnam, where a belief with no basis in science has recently emerged that it can be used to cure cancer.

South Africa, which has more rhinos than any other country in Africa, saw nearly 1,200 of the animals killed by poachers in 2015, its Environment Ministry said.

There is an arc of illegal animal slaughter on the continent from South Sudan, where conservationists say elephants are being slain by both government forces and rebels, to South Africa.

Trade in rhino horn is banned globally under the terms of the CITES convention. Elsewhere in Africa, elephant poaching for ivory has been rampant, with Asia also the main market for the illicit commodity.

(Reporting by Justin Madden in Chicago, editing by G Crosse)

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