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 spots across 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.”
YVES HOAREAU, A RESEARCH SCIENTIST in Wasser’s lab, unsnaps the padlock on a walk-in refrigerator and pulls out a cardboard box the size of a laptop computer. He and Wasser gather around it like kids at Christmas.
“We’ve been waiting almost two years for this,” Wasser says, checking Customs stamps and seals to ensure an unimpeachable chain of custody. Inside are 90 tiny vials of powdered ivory from one of the largest shipments ever intercepted. In 2017, Hong Kong officials discovered 7.2 tons of tusks — valued at $9 million and representing more than 700 dead elephants — hidden under boxes of frozen fish in a shipping container.
Getting the samples was a nightmare for Wasser, as it often is.
To ensure high-quality results, he and his team often travel to countries where ivory was seized to collect the samples themselves. They buy wheelbarrows and circular saws in local markets, then spend days sorting the tusks, matching pairs and cutting small squares from an area near the base ideal for DNA analysis.
“Sam’s there covered in sweat and working backbreaking hours,” says filmmaker Kate Brooks, who followed Wasser and Hoareau as they processed a shipment of smuggled tusks in Singapore for her documentary “The Last Animals.” “I think that speaks volumes about his dedication.”
But some countries refuse to cooperate. Bureaucracy, miscommunication and rivalries between law enforcement agencies, NGOs and governments can throw up roadblocks. Wasser didn’t get the powdered ivory samples from Hong Kong until almost two years after the seizure, but the government recently granted him permission to personally collect additional samples from the smuggled tusks.
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Some of the tusks have writing on them that appears to match tusks from another seizure, and Wasser suspects the DNA analysis will confirm the link. His earlier work showed that traffickers often separate paired tusks from the same elephants into different shipments. By analyzing DNA and shipping routes, he also identified a handful of major cartels that appear to dominate ivory smuggling between Africa and Asian markets.
WASSER NEVER IMAGINED himself chasing international criminals. As a kid, he loved animals, so he decided to be a veterinarian. But his career took several unexpected twists, including at the start.
Wasser grew up in Detroit. His father was a Harley-riding car mechanic who could barely read. He passed on his love of motorcycles to his son, along with the conviction that Sam could accomplish anything he wanted if he worked hard enough. Sam’s own adult son, Noah, says his dad once confided that his biggest fear is not doing his best, not trying as hard as he can.
When vet school didn’t work out — Wasser gave up eating meat after having to slaughter a chicken — the family scraped together enough money to send him to Africa, the ultimate destination for a budding wildlife biologist. But when he arrived in 1973, his plan to join researchers studying lions in Uganda was derailed after dictator Idi Amin’s troops raided their camp.
Marooned and alone, Wasser finally hooked up with another research project in Kenya, which landed him in the thick of the annual migration of nearly 2 million wildebeests and zebra and sparked a lifelong infatuation. “I turned 20 during that study, and it changed my life,” he says. “For many, many years, all I cared about was going to Africa.”
He returned in 1979 as a UW doctoral student studying baboons in Tanzania. Wasser spent more than a decade, off and on, observing the primates and unraveling their complex social lives. He came to know the animals so intimately that when he returned after months away, he could immediately match new youngsters with their mothers just by appearance.
It was in the grasslands of southern Tanzania that Wasser first stumbled across elephants killed by poachers, their faces hacked off to remove the tusks. Sometimes he heard gunfire in the distance. Poachers wiped out almost half of Africa’s elephants in the 1980s, when ivory sales were still legal, and Wasser’s field area was the site of some of the most intense killing.
The mutilated carcasses haunted him for years and helped convince him to forsake basic science and dedicate himself to research with an impact. “I felt like, I’m studying these baboons and their interesting behavioral ecology, but I’m not really doing much to help animals,” he recalls.
“PASSIONATE” AND “TENACIOUS” are the words friends and colleagues most commonly use to describe Wasser.
“If he believes in something, he just hangs on for the ride and doesn’t relent,” says William Clark, former chairman of Interpol’s Wildlife Crimes Group. Clark, who worked with Wasser on the first ivory cases to use DNA evidence, remembers their initial meeting at a London conference of top wildlife law enforcement officials nearly 20 years ago. The setting was an 18th-century mansion with gleaming wood and plush chairs. Wasser upset the decorum with an impassioned plea to consider elephants as fellow beings, not commodities.
Many of the law enforcement veterans dismissed him as a “bunny-hugger” and attacked the validity of DNA fingerprinting, but Clark was impressed. “He stood up to them, and he let his emotions right into it, which I have always said is absolutely necessary for scientists.”
Wasser’s persistence paid off with the 2014 conviction of an ivory dealer in Togo who claimed he was selling old tusks from Chad, harvested before most international ivory sales were banned in 1989. Isotope testing showed the ivory was new, while the DNA tracked it to poaching hot spots in Cameroon and Gabon.
In another case, DNA evidence helped win a 20-year jail sentence for Feisal Mohamed Ali, a suspected ivory kingpin in Kenya. But an appeals court overturned the conviction. Now, Wasser is working with U.S. Homeland Security investigator John Brown III to connect Ali to other seizures and build a stronger case for retrial. Brown, who’s based in Nairobi, and Wasser talk almost every day, bouncing ideas off each other and discussing investigations. “Dr. Wasser has an insane amount of energy,” Brown says.
As intense as he is in his professional life, friends and family say Wasser is a softy who cries over sad movies and has a knack for coaxing shy children out of their shells. He unwinds by playing jazz saxophone.
“He’s a motherly presence, one of the most nurturing people I’ve ever worked with,” says Kathleen Gobush, who earned her Ph.D. under Wasser studying elephants. He traveled with her to Tanzania to help get the project started, offering tips on everything from local snacks to locating elephant poop in tall grass. His son, Noah, then 12 years old, came along. In the evenings, father and son read Harry Potter books together.
On that trip, Wasser turned what could have been a painful experience for the youngster into a lesson on compassion and hard choices. Villagers outside the park had stoned an orphaned baby baboon that was stealing their food. Park staff were preparing to euthanize the badly injured animal. “I remember my dad using that as an opportunity to talk with me about how sometimes, with animals, it can be kind to put them out of their misery,” says Noah, who cradled the dying creature in his arms. “I will always remember that.”
WASSER ATTRIBUTES many of his best ideas to collaborations, often with unlikely partners. The revelation that dogs could be trained to find scat occurred to him during a conversation with a hunter who used tracking dogs to tree bears. When he was trying to extract DNA from ivory, which many others had failed to do, Wasser consulted forensic dentists who analyze teeth to solve crimes and identify victims. The key, they told him, is to pulverize the ivory at minus-300 degrees, to keep the genetic material from breaking down.
Wasser’s freethinking style can annoy people who insist scientists shouldn’t venture into advocacy or law enforcement or international relations. “A lot of people prefer others to stay in their box,” says Gobush, now a wildlife researcher for the late Paul Allen’s Vulcan organization. “Sam goes beyond the box.”
That includes working with the media and speaking out at every opportunity to publicize the plight of elephants. The trailer for Brooks’ film, featuring Wasser, was shown last fall at a high-level meeting of wildlife enforcement experts convened by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. (The film is available on nationalgeographic.comand Hulu.) September will bring the publication of “Wild Elephants,” a book Wasser collaborated on with photographer Art Wolfe.
Public opinion, which has been turning against ivory sales, is a powerful force pushing governments — including the United States and China — to adopt more restrictive policies, says Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Save the Elephants. “Sam played an important role in all that.” Wasser is able to walk the tightrope between science and activism because his research is solid, adds Douglas-Hamilton, whose early aerial surveys helped expose the “elephant apocalypse” caused by poaching in the 1980s. “The science is the rock bottom of getting policy change.”
But elephants aren’t the only imperiled species on Wasser’s mind these days. Lately, he’s been worrying about pangolins — small, anteater-like creatures that might be the most heavily poached animal in the world. Wildlife traffickers appear to be trying to diversify their product lines, hyping pangolin scales as a supposed cure for a wide range of maladies. In April, Customs officials in Singapore intercepted a 14-ton shipment of scales, representing 36,000 dead animals. Increasingly, pangolin scales are bundled with ivory in the same containers, by the same cartels.
“It’s crazy,” Wasser says. “Where are they all coming from?”
He and his colleagues hope to answer that question by applying the same approach they used with elephants. They’re working on a system to suck air from sealed shipping containers through filters, then train dogs to sniff the filters for a whiff of pangolin parts or ivory. They’re also starting to piece together a genetic reference map based on DNA samples from pangolin poop. But with eight species across Africa and Asia, it’s a tough proposition.
Something else to lie awake and think about.
“It’s the one thing that makes me look forward to retirement,” Wasser says, with a laugh. “Maybe I’ll get a good night’s sleep.”