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.

On Tuesday morning, 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.

Rampant poaching

Since 2011, federal agents have been conducting a national crackdown — Operation Crash — targeting traffickers in what they say is a multibillion-dollar international poaching network that is decimating iconic species in Africa and Asia.

The operation was given its name because “crash” is the term used to describe a herd of rhinos. Lund said Zheng’s case was developed independent of the national investigation.

Elephant ivory and rhino horn have been internationally regulated since 1976, with more than 173 countries signing a treaty to protect imperiled wildlife, fish and plants.

In the past five years, rampant poaching across Africa and Asia has led to skyrocketing prices in the international black market for ornamental carvings on the tusks and rhino horns, as well as for powdered horn that is reputed in some cultures to have medicinal purposes, ranging from fighting cancer to enhancing sexual potency in men.

The market is so lucrative that it has drawn organized crime groups that control poaching operations from the field to final sales — providing everything from weapons to GPS tracking systems to logistical support for smuggling tusks and horns across international networks.

“Trafficking in rhinoceros horns and elephant ivory fuels the market for ivory jewelry and other goods that threaten these vulnerable species worldwide,” said assistant U.S. Attorney Laura Provinzino. “Cases like this help to prevent the extinction of the elephant and rhino species.”

Suspicious rhino horn cup

There are no records of Zheng or his business obtaining an import-export license, or declaring any wildlife specimens upon import from any foreign country, according to the warrant.

Zheng’s trade in artifacts has drawn the interest of federal authorities since at least 2011, when he tried to smuggle at least seven carved ivory specimens out of O’Hare International Airport in Chicago to China, Lund said. That same year, wildlife agents in Memphis learned from a FedEx Trade Networks unit that Zheng had shipped a suspicious package from France to the United States, according to court records.

Agents were alerted because the package lacked the proper documentation for import-export purposes, records show. An agent found that Zheng had shipped a libation cup made from Javan rhino horn that he’d bought from Christie’s of France, in Paris, and that he had not properly accounted for how he acquired and shipped that item to the U.S., according to court records. Javan rhinos are near extinction and libation cups carved from their horns are in great demand in China, authorities say.