- Samuel K. Wasser, a conservation biologist at the University of Washington, U.S., has pioneered ways of using DNA from animal feces to track wildlife poachers.
- In recognition of his achievements, the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) has honored Wasser with the Albert Schweitzer Medal, an award that “recognizes outstanding achievement in the advancement of animal welfare.”
- In a brief Q&A, Wasser told Mongabay that it was “heartening” to win the Albert Schweitzer Medal, and that he is proud to see his work make a difference in the world.
From dogs to poop, Samuel K. Wasser has used it all to monitor wildlife and track down poachers.
A conservation biologist at the University of Washington, U.S., Wasser has pioneered methods that use DNA from elephant dung to identify poaching hotspots and pinpoint where seized ivory originates from — work that’s been instrumental in prosecuting some of Africa’s biggest ivory poachers. He has also spearheaded the use of detection dogs to sniff out the feces of wild animals over large landscapes. This innovative strategy has helped researchers monitor the health of threatened species without needing to actually spot any individuals in the wild.
In recognition of his achievements, the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) has awarded Wasser with the Albert Schweitzer Medal. The medal, instituted in 1951 in honor of the philosopher and theologian Albert Schweitzer who would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize a year later, “recognizes outstanding achievement in the advancement of animal welfare.” Past recipients of the medal include British primatologist Jane Goodall and American biologist Rachel Carson.
U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington presented the award to Wasser in a ceremony in Washington, D.C., on April 10.
“Dr. Wasser’s groundbreaking work has paved the way for remarkable strides in the fight against wildlife trafficking, especially ivory trade,” Cathy Liss, the AWI president, said in a statement. “The Animal Welfare Institute feels privileged to have this opportunity to acknowledge his accomplishments with the Albert Schweitzer Medal.”
Mongabay caught up with Wasser, who said it was “heartening to win the Albert Schweitzer Medal.”
A brief Q&A with Wasser follows.
Mongabay: Can you give us a bit of background on how you first became interested in studying wildlife?
Samuel K. Wasser: I loved animals all my life. I started working in Africa at 19 years of age, studying how migratory ungulate herds impact lion social structure and hunting patterns in the Serengeti-Mara Ecosystem. Then, I was hooked.
What inspired you to develop non-invasive methods to monitor the distribution and physiological health of wild animals?
During my doctoral dissertation on baboons in southern Tanzania, I became interested in how the environment impacts the timing of reproduction in baboons. I pioneered methods to measure stress and reproductive hormones in baboons to do that. That led to tools to measure nutrition hormones, DNA and even toxins in feces.
How did you come up with the idea of training dogs to sniff out animal feces? What kinds of species can the detection dogs identify from scat?
Realizing how much biological information was available in scat and how accessible scat is in the wilderness, I was searching for a method that could increase access to these samples across large wilderness areas in an unbiased manner. Detection dogs were the answer. They have an extraordinary ability to detect samples from their scent. Since detection is incentivized by the reward of a couple minutes of play with their ball, the dogs are actually searching for ways to get their ball. The means to that end is locating the target samples associated with that reward. That makes detection dog sampling virtually unbiased because the dogs get their ball regardless of the sex of the target species or the degree to which the sample is hidden, features that typically bias other forms of sampling (for example, trapping, hair songs, camera traps).
Our dogs have been used to detect dozens of species. Examples include: grizzly bears, killer whales, right whales, pocket mice, northern spotted owls, Jemez [Mountains] salamanders, wolves, caribou, moose, coyote, cougar, bobcat, lynx, fisher, pangolins, jaguar, maned wolves, tapir, tigers, lions, cheetah, invasive plants, and even chemical in the environment like PCBs [polychlorinated biphenyls].
What prompted you to develop techniques to determine when and where an elephant was killed by poachers?
My baboons work was in the most heavily poached part of Africa, the Mikumi-Selous Ecosystem in southern Tanzania. My work there began in 1979, the same year that poaching began to skyrocket and continued for another 20 years. Throughout that time, we frequently ran across poached elephants, or had to leave the field because we heard gun shots nearby. I wanted to do something about it. When my lab pioneered methods to get DNA from feces, I realized that was the answer. I could collect elephant scat across Africa and use the DNA in the scat to map elephant genetics across the continent. If I could then get DNA from ivory, I could match the ivory genotypes to the DNA reference map to determine where seized ivory was poached.
Has your work led to the prosecution of poachers?
Yes, it helped prosecute some of Africa’s biggest ivory traffickers: Emile N’bouke in Togo, allegedly the largest ivory trafficker in West Africa, and Feisal Mohamed Ali, in Mombasa [in Kenya] who was recently convicted for 20 years in prison, partly because my lab linked him to over 13 different large ivory seizures. There are others that can’t be named but who are in jail now waiting to be prosecuted.
Do you feel disheartened to see the current levels of poaching in Africa? How do you stay motivated?
It is horrible to watch and it just doesn’t stop. What keeps me going is that my work is making a difference and I am very proud of that.
Is there anything else that you would like to add?
I could not have done this work without great partners: Bill Clark was my mentor and paved the way for me to apply these methods to actual ivory seizures. My incredible staff at the Center for Conservation Biology work tirelessly to genotype these samples. Governments like Kenya, Uganda, Mozambique, South Sudan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Taiwan, and others who gave me access to their ivory seizures, INTERPOL who supported many of these sampling efforts, many donors like U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics [and] Law Enforcement Affairs, World Bank, Vulcan, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, Woodtiger Fund, the Bosack Charitable Foundation and others for continuous support, and my most recent collaborators, U.S. Homeland Security Investigations.