Sam Wasser’s life is bound by threads so small that a thousand of them braided together wouldn’t amount to a single eyelash. These threads are strands of deoxyribonucleic acid, better known as DNA. DNA’s double helix—the two strings of nucleotides that caress each other in a spiraling embrace—provides the genetic instructions for everything that lives. To Dr. Wasser, DNA provides clues—information he can use to illuminate the lives of imperiled animals and track the movements and methods of poachers who plot their demise.
At the University of Washington, in Seattle, Wasser is the endowed chair in Conservation Biology and director of the Center for Conservation Biology. On April 10, at a ceremony held at the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, DC, AWI awarded the Schweitzer Medal to Wasser in recognition of his groundbreaking work that has contributed enormously to the fight against wildlife trafficking. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) presented the medal on AWI’s behalf.
In one of his most noteworthy accomplishments, Wasser has assembled a DNA reference map of elephants across Africa, which is now widely used to determine the geographic origins of poached ivory. This work has led to prosecutions of major transnational ivory traffickers and nurtured key collaborations with the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime, INTERPOL, US Homeland Security Investigations, the US Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the US Department of State, and wildlife authorities in numerous source and transit countries across Africa and Asia. DNA detective work at Wasser’s lab has also benefited orcas, pangolins, wolves, baboons, and a host of other species.
Wasser is guided not only by the intertwined threads of DNA’s double helix, but also by the intertwined attributes of meticulous science and ethical values. In explaining what motivates him, Wasser states, “I started working in Africa when I was 19 years old because I loved animals. That was 1973. Since then, I have watched the rising toll that overconsumption, habitat destruction, and poaching has had on the world’s most spectacular terrestrial and marine organisms. I was unable to just stand by, and my life’s mission became developing and applying noninvasive methods to uncover these human impacts, show them to the world, and offer solutions for change.”
The “noninvasive” aspect of his work is underscored by how he handles his study subjects—or rather, how he avoids handling them: He manages to uncover volumes about a wildlife population’s abundance, distribution, and physiological conditions without ever disturbing, or necessarily even seeing, a single animal. That is because all the information he needs is (not so neatly) packaged in what they leave behind.
In no small measure, Wasser reimages the living individuals—their health, their wanderings, their family relationships—from their feces. Laboratory examination of dung dropped by animals in their natural habitats reveals trace amounts of hormones that provide reliable information about their stress levels, nutrition, and reproductive status. Extraction of the animals’ own DNA from feces has helped Wasser identify individual animals and place them within a larger web of elephants throughout the continent.
Wasser has collected dung samples from more than 3,000 elephants across Africa. He has identified 16 locations on the chromosome containing genetic markers. Genetic variations at these loci are linked to the geographical site where the DNA was acquired. From such information, Wasser created his detailed elephant DNA map.
With this resource in hand, Wasser can take a sample of DNA from an unknown origin—for example, DNA extracted from ivory confiscated somewhere in the Far East—and match it against all those reference samples on his DNA map. Thus, he can pinpoint the area where the elephant lived and ultimately was killed.
Along the way, Wasser has developed some impressive new tools to solve vexing problems. For instance, how can a scientist extract DNA from something as hard as elephant ivory? Grinding the stuff into a powder creates so much heat that the DNA is obliterated in the process. Wasser’s inspiration was to use a powerful electromagnet to vibrate the ivory at high frequency while it is submerged in liquid nitrogen at -321° F. This pulverizes the ivory without destroying the DNA.
Repeated tests of the system have verified that it is exceptionally accurate. This accuracy makes Wasser’s results very much welcomed by the various national and international agencies engaged in efforts to combat ivory trafficking. The most obvious benefit of such analyses is that they can be used to identify poaching hotspots. They can also be used to reveal internal smuggling routes in Africa, link separate seizures, and illuminate the strategies employed by criminal syndicates. And they have served as evidence in the successful prosecution of infamous ivory traffickers such as Emile N’Bouke and Feisal Mohamed Ali. (See AWI Quarterly, fall 2016.) Because of the crime-solving component of Wasser’s work, he is sometimes referred to as the “Sherlock Holmes of the illegal wildlife trade.” (His preferred source material for sleuthing has also earned him a more colorful moniker: the Guru of Dudu.)
The medal's presenter, Senator Cantwell, has long supported Dr. Wasser’s work and has her own distinguished record on animals and the environment. During her tenure in Congress, Cantwell has sought to combat animal cruelty, protect vulnerable wildlife species and natural resources, increase transparency in government as it relates to the enforcement of environmental and animal welfare laws, and uphold and support sound science—oftentimes fending off efforts to weaken existing laws and policies that address these issues.
Prior to the ceremony, Cantwell said that “Dr. Samuel K Wasser has been instrumental in safeguarding key protections for some of the world’s most vulnerable animal populations. At every chance, he has fought for endangered animals, and in each case, he has made significant contributions to wildlife conservation efforts around the globe. We cannot thank Dr. Wasser enough for all he has done and will do to advance global conservation efforts and fight back against poaching.”
In her address at the award ceremony, Cantwell recalled Wasser’s prediction—made at their first meeting—that, once he told her what he does, she would never forget him. “I follow whale scat,” he said. Indeed, much of Wasser’s early work involved the use of trained scent-detection dogs on boats (pictured below) to gather scat samples used to study endangered southern resident orcas. True to this prediction, Cantwell never forgot him.
Dr. Albert Schweitzer once said, “the friend of nature is the man who feels himself inwardly united with everything that lives in nature, who shares in the fate of all creatures, helps them when he can in their pain and need, and as far as possible avoids injuring or taking life.” The virtues that make Wasser’s science so exceptional is its verification of the kinship of all life—empirical discipline coupled with deep reverence for what he studies.
For his dogged pursuit of this mission, and the many benefits that have accrued from his ingenious efforts, AWI is proud to award the Schweitzer Medal to Dr. Samuel K Wasser.
About the Schweitzer Medal
Shortly after AWI was founded in 1951, Dr. Albert Schweitzer gave the organization permission to create a medal—bearing his name and honoring his legacy—to be presented for outstanding achievement in the advancement of animal welfare. In December 1953, a gold replica of the medal was presented to Schweitzer by Dr. Charles Joy in Oslo, Norway, where the famed humanitarian had gone to accept the Nobel Peace Prize. In his Nobel acceptance speech, Schweitzer admonished his listeners that “compassion, in which ethics takes root, does not assume true proportions until it embraces not only man, but every living being.”
For over 60 years, the Schweitzer Medal has been a symbol of outstanding achievement in the advancement of animal welfare. AWI has now awarded the medal to 46 individuals representing myriad disciplines—to Dr. Samuel K Wasser and other scientists, such as Dr. Jane Goodall and Rachel Carson, who helped us understand the social and emotional lives of wild animals and how our actions profoundly affect the natural world; to political leaders, such as Sen. Hubert Humphrey and Sen. Robert Dole, who championed key animal protection laws in Congress; to reporters, such as William Carr, Ann Cottrell Free, and Tom Knudson, who exposed animal cruelty in research and inhumane wildlife management practices by our own government. The award has honored prosecutors and peace officers on the front line who tackle crimes against animals, foreign presidents and dignitaries who have helped preserve wildlife habitat, and individuals who did not set out to be champions for animals but who courageously stepped in when confronted with cruelty.