BEIJING: To his students at St. Cloud State University, Yiwei Zheng was merely a contemplative professor who lectured on Chinese religions and the existentialist philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre. He was popular on campus and had once served as president of the Association of Chinese Philosophers of North America.
But to federal wildlife agents who had been watching him for years, Zheng was a secretive dealer in Chinese antiquities who profited from an international black market for carved ivory and other rare objects.
Zheng was arrested at a St. Cloud restaurant by agents from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, accused of smuggling elephant ivory and rhinoceros horn out of the United States and into China from 2006 through at least 2011.
Zheng’s arrest followed the unsealing of a grand jury indictment that accuses him of violating the U.S. Endangered Species Act and international treaties protecting threatened wildlife. Later in the afternoon, he appeared before U.S. Magistrate Judge Steven E. Rau in federal court in St. Paul and was ordered to surrender his passport, then released on a $25,000 bond.
Zheng, a naturalized U.S. citizen who grew up in Shanghai, China, has operated an online sales business out of his St. Cloud home called Crouching Dragon Antiques since 2010, according to court documents. Often using eBay as his marketing base, Zheng offered wildlife specimen parts and carved objects, describing them as made from “ox bone.”
But agents suspected they were actually made from carved elephant ivory that Zheng was smuggling to China, according to a federal search warrant.
The indictment says that Zheng also illegally imported specimens from endangered species into the U.S. from China and made false statements to agents about selling rhino horns.
Agents say at one point Zheng told them that he sold the horns to a man at a McDonald’s restaurant in St. Cloud, but in fact he illegally exported the horns to a co-conspirator in China, according to the indictment.
While the dollar value of the items was not disclosed Tuesday, federal agents said the amount was significant and that it is the first such case in Minnesota, sending a message that they are on the lookout for illegal international traders who profit from protected species.
“We take one person out and we get the benefit of deterrence,” said Patrick Lund, special agent in charge of the wildlife service’s St. Paul office.
“It’s not like a drug dealer where one is taken out and another steps in. It requires specialized knowledge, and you’ve got to know the trade.”
St. Cloud State spokesman Adam Hammer said Zheng, who has taught there since 1999, is expected to resume his classes this week and will be treated with due process pending the outcome of his court case.