Innovator Profiles: Sam Wasser Knows Elephant Poop and Is Using It to Catch Poachers

Dr. Sam Wasser is a professor in the Department of Biology and Director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington. As a self-described “Guru of Doo-Doo”, Wasser is part scientist and part detective, developing innovative methods that use dung to measure wildlife populations, conditions and locations across Africa. The elephant dung he collects is then used to contribute to a DNA reference map of elephants, highlighting and pinpointing poaching hotspots.

His work has led to the discovery, arrest and prosecution of some of Africa’s biggest ivory poachers and regularly aids law enforcement and authorities in finding the criminal cartels funding those poachers.

We sat down with Wasser to talk about his work, how he thinks we can end the ivory trade once and for all and his hope for the future of elephants.

Tell us more about the work you do in your lab here in Seattle. How did you get started in this career?

My lab does two main things. We focus on wildlife monitoring over large landscapes and wildlife forensic science. The foundation of our work is non-invasive. A lot of the work we do is generated from getting background data collected from feces over large areas. I started my Ph.D. work in southern Tanzania in 1979, and I was studying wild baboons at the time, and I was looking at ways to monitor how they control timing of reproduction. During that process from 1979 to 1989 was when the largest elephant massacre occurred in Africa. They went from 1.3 million elephants to about 600,000, and the largest concentration of poaching was right where I was working. So as I was developing non-invasive methods to measure reproductive control in baboons, I realized that these could be applied to the illegal ivory trade and figuring out where elephants came from. The two kind of just came together and I was able to determine where the majority of ivory poaching was occurring in Africa.

Tell us more about how you developed the elephant DNA reference map. How did you pull all these different ideas together?

When I first started my Ph.D. work on the wild baboons and we were measuring hormones in fecal samples, we had to see the animals defecate to know who it came from. Then it occurred to me if I could get DNA out of the feces, then I wouldn’t even have to see the animal defecate, and I could ask questions over really large landscapes, which is so critical for asking conservation type questions. Our first mission was to figure out how we can get DNA out of the fecal samples, and we developed that around 1997. As soon as we had done that it occurred to me, if I can get DNA out of ivory, then I can match it to this reference map created with the dung samples, which would answer a huge number of critical questions that could help direct law enforcement to the critical poaching areas.

How accurate is the data you get?

Right now the accuracy depends on how comprehensive our reference samples of DNA across Africa are. So we have about 3,000 reference samples now, each collected from a separate family group across the entire continent of Africa, and at any sampling location we may have between 2 and 90 samples. We test the accuracy of our method by pulling half of all the dung samples at a given location out of the reference samples and recalculating our gene frequencies across the continent with those absent. Then we try to reassign those samples that we took out blind and see how close we get to the real location. That tells us how accurate we are. We can take a DNA sample from an elephant from anywhere in Africa and get it to within 300 kilometers of where the elephant was poached, and sometimes to the very national park because there’s only one protected area within that 300 kilometer radius. So when you consider that you can put about five United States’ inside of Africa, that’s extremely accurate.

What do you see as the solution to ending the ivory trade?

I personally believe the most fundamental thing we can do is develop better intelligence gathering methods, specifically methods that are focused in Africa before the ivory leaves the continent. I think the kinds of tools we’re developing now help figure out where the poaching hot spots are, but where are the major cartels, and how are they moving this ivory around? In my mind that is the most significant thing we can do. It’s of course really important to stop the poaching on the ground because that keeps the elephant from being killed. But one of the problems is that these poachers are working in really large areas. They know the area extremely well, they often pay off rangers to know where they’re operating. They don’t have many cuts with them when you do catch them, and there’s often 10 poachers waiting to take their place once they’re pulled out. So to me the biggest challenge is to figure out where these big cartels are operating, and essentially paying for all these poaching operations on the ground. Where are they operating within the ports where the ivory is being smuggled out?

If you think about it, the bullet to kill an elephant costs between $25 and $30. These poachers don’t have the money to buy those bullets. We know that the ammunition, the rifles, all of this fancy equipment that they are using is paid for by these big cartels. They are essentially funding these operations in the neighboring countries. So we can struggle and struggle to try to get the poachers on the ground, which we absolutely need to do. But if you don’t get this cartel at the hub,+ moving the lion’s share of ivory out, and driving everything, the real clever individuals who know how to capitalize on this transnational crime and the movement of all kinds of products around the world, then I think we are never going to win this battle.

What gives you hope for the future of elephants?

What gives me hope for elephants is that the world seems to finally be educated about the importance of elephants in the ecosystem and what’s been happening to the them. It’s been really striking how unaware the public is of the consequences of the ivory trade for elephants. For example, studies in China have shown that many Chinese people, where of course the demand for ivory is highest, believe that you don’t have to kill an elephant to get the ivory. But public education has changed that dramatically. So now we’re seeing for the first time a coming together of many NGOs and government entities that have previously been highly polarized – some believing we should promote ivory trade, some believing we should shut the trade down – we’re seeing them come together and really move forward with a common goal of shutting down all ivory markets. That’s something that Vulcan and Paul Allen Philanthropies was really critical in instigating for Initiative 1401 here in Washington, and this has been spreading like wildfire. We’re finally seeing coming together that we’ve never seen before. So that gives me great hope.

The other thing that gives me great hope is the understanding of wildlife poaching as a major transnational organized crime, and that we really need to do something about it. Right now, the illegal wildlife trade is estimated to be between $10 and $20 billion in revenue a year, and that’s not counting illegal fishing or timber. This is just other wildlife related products. The current attention has engendered other law enforcement agencies to get involved, not just U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service but U.S. Homeland Security, the FBI and even the CIA are making this a very high priority issue for them. So I think the appreciation of the significance of this behavior, toward the health of the planet, has grown to a critical mass that we hopefully can do something about it. Because I mean, let’s face it, these criminals don’t care about anything but personal gain and profit and they’re very clever. And if we don’t put our minds together to solve these problems, we’re in trouble, and that is really happening for the first time.

Learn more about Dr. Sam Wasser’s work here