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Sam Wasser and his intense passion for wildlife conservation

Monday, May 20, 2019 - 11:30

Photo by Kate Brooks
Excerpt from article by Sandi Doughton of The Seattle Times

SAM WASSER doesn’t sleep well.

How can he, when 40,000 elephants are still slaughtered for their tusks every year? When — despite his best efforts — transnational trafficking rings continue to smuggle ivory and other wildlife contraband with impunity?

It’s especially maddening for Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington, because he thought he had a solution: a DNA fingerprinting method that took years to develop and has the power to trace ivory back to its geographic origins. In 2015, Wasser and his colleagues used the technique to pinpoint the worst poaching hot spotsacross Africa — and waited for the crackdowns to follow. But some nations responded with shrugs or denials, while others lack the money and manpower to do much about it.

So Wasser lies awake at night, his mind churning, trying to figure out more effective ways to attack the problem. Sometimes a new insight will jolt him out of slumber. Many nights, stress is the sleep-killer. The stress of scrambling for grants to keep his lab afloat, of trying to cajole officials in Mombasa or Singapore or Côte d’Ivoire to let him sample seized ivory for DNA testing, of watching known traffickers walk free.

Sitting in his book-lined office at the UW, Wasser throws up his hands in frustration. “If nothing is happening with this information, then what good is the work?” Two fake tusks lean in the corner, and a framed photograph of an elephant herd hangs on the wall, as if to remind him what’s at stake. “I’m not very optimistic at all,” he says, shaking his head.

Then, in practically the same breath, he vows not to give up.

“I have enough hope that I’m always working harder and harder to make a difference.”

WASSER HAS BEEN working hard for wildlife since he first traveled to Africa as a naive 19-year-old hoping to study lions. Today, he’s a 65-year-old rock star in the field of conservation biology, a wildlife detective whose reputation was built on an unlikely base: his breakthrough discovery that it’s possible to use feces — yes, poop — to unobtrusively peer into the hidden lives of animals.

Feces are unique calling cards, packed with information about an animal’s identity, stress level, diet and reproductive cycle. It took Wasser five years to perfect a technique to extract DNA from poop, which revolutionized researchers’ ability to count and track animals without ever having to see them. In order to find the feces, he pioneered the use of sniffer dogs.

Through poop, Wasser and his colleagues were the first to confirm grizzly bears had ventured back into Washington. They debunked the argument that northern spotted owls were unruffled by logging. Their most recent studies documented famine, failed pregnancies and toxic chemicals in Puget Sound orcas and tallied the number of wolves east of the Cascade Mountains.

“I remember chuckling the first time Sam told us, ‘Every scat you pick up is a treasure trove of information,’ ” says Julianne Ubigau, who joined Wasser’s lab in 2006 and has trained dogs to sniff out poop from pocket mice, cougars and dozens of other species. “Now I find myself saying the exact same thing.”

Even the DNA fingerprinting of ivory was predicated on poop. Wasser and his colleagues built a reference map of genetic variations in elephant populations across Africa by extracting and analyzing DNA from thousands of dung samples collected by park rangers, scientists and volunteers.

The Animal Welfare Institute honored Wasser last year with its prestigious Albert Schweitzer Medal for “groundbreaking work (that) has paved the way for remarkable strides in the fight against wildlife trafficking.” Previous recipients include Jane Goodall and Rachel Carson.

But saving elephants is shaping up to be the fight of Wasser’s life.

He’s already ventured far beyond the traditional confines of science, plunging into the world of law enforcement, where he works closely with investigators and prosecutors. He’s a regular at international meetings, calling for an end to all sales of ivory and making enemies of those who insist some limited, legal trade doesn’t harm elephant populations.

Now, he’s shifting course yet again.

Wasser’s gloom evaporates as he describes his latest brainstorm: Because wildlife laws are notoriously weak, why not focus on financial crimes to bring down wildlife traffickers, in the same way the FBI nailed mobster Al Capone for tax evasion? The DNA data can trace the ivory’s origins and movements and reveal links between crime syndicates, then investigators can follow that road map to root out evidence of money laundering, forged records and shell companies.

“The whole idea is to make a rock-solid case with laws that have teeth,” Wasser says excitedly. The new approach is already starting to pay off, he adds, leaning in and lowering his voice.

“We’re doing investigations I never dreamed were possible right now. And we’re likely to bring down some massive criminals.”

Read the full article on The Seattle Times.

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