Armed with DNA and forensic science, Sam Wasser fights to save endangered species

The UW biology professor is a scientific solder in the battle to protect vulnerable wildlife.

Don’t let Samuel Wasser’s achievements fool you. Sure, he may be responsible for developing an investigative tool that helps bring international elephant poachers to justice. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t above crying at insurance commercials.

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.”

He returned to Tanzania in 1979 to conduct research for a dissertation on pregnancy and aggression in female baboons. He realized how important it was for animals to control the number of their births to limit competition for scarce resources. He also discovered that female baboons formed coalitions to get other females to fail to ovulate or to abort. Wasser eventually began searching for a way to measure the stress that led to that form of population control.

I never thought I would be doing what I’m doing now, but I always wanted to save animals.

Sam Wasser

sam wasser, biology

In the battle to save elephants from extinction, Sam Wasser examines tusks seized in Malaysia in 2012. He uses DNA from the tusks to determine where the poaching occurred, helping efforts to shut down criminal networks.

When a colleague discovered how to isolate and identify cells in feces, Wasser perfected the process, giving researchers a new, more affordable way to track wildlife when it is out of view. GPS collars are effective, but they only track the movements of an individual animal and cost thousands of dollars. Poop, on the other hand, is plentiful, easy to collect and provides a treasure trove of information—including DNA, hormones and stress levels.

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.

Putting DNA to work

His theory got its first test in 2004 after the international policing agency, Interpol, seized six-and-a-half tons of ivory and asked Wasser to analyze it. At the time, law enforcement officials believed that most seizures contained ivory that was cherry-picked throughout Africa. By comparing the DNA from the tusks with his DNA mapping, Wasser was able to disprove that theory. “We showed that nearly all of the ivory is coming from just two places,” he says. “It was as though the trafficker got a purchase order saying, ‘I need this many tusks by this date,’ and they would send their people out to get it.”

Wasser helped show that most of the poaching was focused in a few areas of Africa, and that the contraband was being transported to distant countries where customs officials wouldn’t look for it. Furthermore, his DNA analysis helped law enforcement determine that organized crime was involved.

“What Sam is providing is substantive evidence that can be used in a courtroom. You can’t convict someone on circumstance. You need hard evidence and Sam is providing that,” says Bill Clark, a now-retired Interpol colleague familiar with Wasser’s work.

As a scientist himself, Clark was particularly impressed with Wasser’s enthusiasm, creativity and persistence when it came to solving problems.

“He likes the scientific challenge [of asking] ‘How do you extract something like DNA from something as hard as ivory?’” Clark says. “I think he’s Nobel Prize material. His scientific thinking, his tenacity. These are all the criteria. The ideas he comes up with to apply science to benefit our world.”

It’s easy to see Wasser’s enthusiasm when talk turns to smuggling. He jumps out of his chair and pulls out a poster showing the connections that authorities have been able to draw, thanks to his work. The details come so quickly, it’s hard to follow them all. But the results are easy to understand: The effort has uncovered three networks and 26 tons of ivory, including 5,200 tusks.

“So you can see, this is pretty exciting. Who else can get to do this kind of thing?” he asks. It doesn’t sound like boasting, though. Instead, it sounds more like wonderment that the job even exists in the first place and that it allows him to ask important questions that have long fascinated him. “What drove me in my dissertation—what I loved the most about evolutionary biology—was asking these really complicated questions about how did things happen in the past and how do you put that whole puzzle together to figure out how it got to where it currently is,” Wasser says.

Even when he’s not running off to Africa, Wasser is still asking those key questions of the other projects he’s involved with.

Former Congressman Norm Dicks, ’63, ’68, asked Wasser, who was then director of the Center for Wildlife Conservation, to weigh in on the controversy in the 1980s surrounding the Northern Spotted Owl. While environmentalists maintained that the birds were endangered because of logging in their old-growth forest habitats, the timber industry insisted that the presence of owls in trees, covered in sawdust, proved that logging practices posed no threat.

“Because we could measure their stress levels through their feces, we were able to show that stress levels were much higher in owls that were near timber practices,” Wasser says.

Wasser and fellow researchers face one huge challenge: the smaller the animals, the harder it is to find stool samples to analyze. Poop may be plentiful, but someone has to go get it. When whales defecate, for example, their stool only floats for a half-hour before sinking. Time is of the essence. That’s where dogs come in.

A little help from his friends

Ever the animal lover, Wasser has rescued 21 pups from the pound and trained them to sniff out samples from 20 animal species. As any dog owner knows, getting dogs to find poop isn’t hard; keeping them focused is. Fortunately, Wasser has found “dogs that have such an enormous focus to play with a ball that … [they’ll] mow down anything in your house including children to get to the ball.”

The ball becomes the reward for each dog who accompanies a human to collect samples for whatever project the center is working on. That might mean sitting on the bow of a boat following whales or, in the case of an ongoing project, collecting stool samples over an 8,000-square-mile area in Eastern Washington to determine the impact of the resurgent wolf population.

sam wasser, biology

Tucker, a black Lab, helps Sam Wasser and his team hunt for killer whale scat off San Juan Island. The work is instrumental in determining the decline of whales between Washington and Alaska.

The return of wolves to Eastern Washington after a century of having been hunted out has raised a number of sensitive issues. Ranchers and farmers, for example, worry that these predators may kill their livestock and, possibly, their children. Then there’s the question about their impact on the ecosystem. After all, wolves had kept the ecosystem in balance for many years. In their absence, coyotes thrived. That’s a problem because coyotes are generalists who will eat whatever prey they find, including snowshoe hare, which lynx rely on.

All of which prompts Wasser to ask, “When a species has been absent for a long period and all of a sudden comes back, can it re-stabilize things? Or have the changes put you in a space so that the wolves’ return causes more chaos than it actually fixes?”

While it’s too early to tell, Wasser can talk about the results of a similar study on wolves conducted in Yellowstone National Park. During the absence of wolves there, coyotes began feasting on young pronghorn antelope, causing that population to crash. Once wolves were reintroduced, the coyote population was brought back under control and the pronghorn recovered.

The big difference between the two projects is the impact humans are having on the outcome. Most people don’t live in national parks year round, but they do live in Eastern Washington. Wasser and his organization are trying to figure out how and why that may make a difference.

“These are the kinds of questions that become really important. We’ve really got to answer these questions. And all of the past theories of ecologists and evolutionary biologists weren’t developed with humans as part of the picture,” he says. “No, they were developed around ecosystems, but those ecosystems of the past are no longer present. There are very few ecosystems that are not riddled with humans. So we need to understand, how does all this fit together? Because if we don’t do that, we’re never going to be able to have wildlife anymore. We have to figure out how they can co-exist with people.”

And that’s what keeps Wasser going. He now turns his attention on how to protect the pangolin, an anteater found in Asia and Africa that is one of the world’s most poached animals.

“I love that whole process,” he says. “It requires a lot of deep thinking and really wonderful questions.”