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Sam Wasser fights to save endangered species, Columns

Monday, June 19, 2017 - 10:00

You could call Wasser an animal detective, but he’s not the gun-toting, tough-talking, hard-boiled investigator that’s the stuff of Hollywood film noir. If anything, the bearded, 62-year-old biology professor with a quiet voice is more of a soft-boiled variety.

“I was the kind of kid that would go shovel the neighbor’s walk for free because she was 85, and I was very happy to do it. When I was in graduate school, my roommates used to laugh at me because I would cry at insurance commercials,” Wasser says. “I’ve just always had a big heart for doing right by people or doing right by animals.”

When some people make that claim, you can tell it’s a bunch of … well, you know. But not in Wasser’s case. That’s because he relies on crap to get his job done. Loads and loads of it.

“Everything we do in our lab,” he says, “relies on poop.”

No matter what you call them, the calling cards animals leave behind provide a load of information that Wasser has figured out how to decode. Besides the obvious—like which animal the sample came from and what the animal ate last night—he can also tell if the animal is pregnant, healthy, sick or just plain stressed out. He can even extract its DNA.

Wasser’s work has taken him to some interesting places all over the globe, ranging from old-growth forests and wolf stomping grounds to oil fields in Alberta and storage facilities in Africa.

The funny thing is, this peace-loving guy—director of the UW Center for Conservation Biology—might not be doing what he’s doing if not for one of Africa’s most violent dictators. (His work at the center focuses on the impact humans have on threatened and endangered species. It relies heavily on the tool he used to help prosecute poachers.)

“To be honest,” Wasser says, “I never thought I would be doing what I’m doing now, but I always wanted to save animals.” Initially, he dreamed of becoming a veterinarian until a high school stint at a veterinary clinic cured him of his desire to treat household pets. Then he became interested in wildlife conservation and headed to Africa to work for a vet in Uganda.

“I couldn’t do [the job] because Idi Amin had taken all this guy’s stuff away,” he recalls. Amin’s soldiers “were looting everything and everyone.”

The trip wasn’t a total loss, however. Wasser got involved with a research project on lions and fell in love with doing fieldwork. As he puts it, “Africa was my passion. Everything I did was to get back to Africa.”

While conducting baboon research, Wasser was alarmed by the prevalence of elephant poaching. During the 18 years he spent in Africa, the pachyderm population dropped by nearly half, from 1.3 million to approximately 700,000. But when the Tanzanian government finally cracked down on poaching, an unforeseen consequence took Wasser by surprise.

“All of a sudden, leopards were coming out of the woodwork and eating our baboons,” he recalls. The spotted feline predators were forced to find another source of food—baboons—because they could no longer rely on meat from elephant carcasses left behind by poachers.

“That was a big moment for me. It made me realize how deeply connected wildlife communities are and how a cascade of events can affect another,” he says. Wasser next found a way to extract DNA from elephant dung. “It just hit me that I could easily collect samples across the whole continent and make a genetic map,” he explains. “Then all I had to do was figure out how to get DNA from ivory and I could tell where the animal was poached.”

By the time he completed his research, he wrote a paper showing that he could take an elephant tusk from anywhere in Africa and determine its provenance within 300 kilometers.


Read the full article in Columns Magazine

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