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MADISON -- A Minnesota man who sold four rhinoceros feet to an undercover agent in a Hudson parking lot was fined $40,000 Friday in federal court for importing endangered species.

Chang Xiong, 47, of Oakdale, Minn., had purchased parts of elephants and rhinoceros on an overseas auction, which is legal, and imported them into the U.S. on doctored custom forms, which is not, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Graber.

Once the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service learned Xiong was selling rhinoceros parts, Graber needed a transaction to occur in Wisconsin to bring him under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Western District of Wisconsin.

A U.S Fish & Wildlife undercover agent chose the Home Depot parking lot in Hudson where he purchased the feet in three buys that took place in July 2016, September 2017 and December 2018.

Xiong, had been a buyer of numerous parts of endangered animals and had many on display in his home, the undercover agent said.

As part of a plea agreement, Xiong surrendered:  a horn, five toenails, and three feet of a rhinoceros; a carved elephant tusk, an ivory figurine, two ivory bracelets and one ivory ring, according to court documents.

Xiong had possessed and sold both black and white rhinoceroses, the undercover agent said.

Like the elephant, the rhinoceros is prized in Hmong culture as a charm and functions as a symbol of wealth and prosperity. A rhinoceros horn can fetch $60,000 on the black market, the undercover agent said. 

“Per gram, the rhinoceros horn is more expensive than cocaine putting it out of reach to many,” he said.

Instead, Xiong sold the feet of a rhinoceros which each can bring $800 to $2,000, the agent said.

Xiong was indicted in December and pleaded guilty in April to selling two rhinoceros feet that had been unlawfully transported into the U.S.

On Friday, both Graber and Xiong’s attorney in Madison, Timothy Kiefer, declined to elaborate on the sentencing memorandum that Graber had filed under seal with the court.

Graber later said he did so to protect the identity of those who helped to disclose Xiong’s crime.

Through an interpreter, Xiong also declined to make a statement.

District Judge William Conley told Xiong that he had “otherwise lived an exemplary life,” working 23 years as a machine operator, marrying and raising three children and providing for his parents and a disabled brother.

However, while the Hmong culture may treat the elephant and rhinoceros differently, they are protected under U.S. law and Xiong needs to respect that, Conley said.

Normally, the number of sales and animals involved in Xiong’s case would result in a sentence of up to one year in prison and probation. But, Conley noted that didn’t apply due to Xiong’s “clean record,” steady employment history and cooperation with authorities after his arrest. 

The judge told him not to reoffend or a prison “would almost be a certainty.”

The $40,000 fine was at the top of the advisory guideline range which Conley said he imposed to deter Xiong and others from selling animals on the endangered species list and as a measure of the seriousness of the offense.

Kevin Murphy is a freelance journalist from Madison, Wis.

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