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Interview with Sam Wasser


Prof. Sam Wasser and "Tucker" a trained dog who tracks orca whales.

By combining the talents of laboratory researchers and trained tracking dogs, Professor Sam Wasser leads a team that helps save the lives of endangered species.  The Center for Conservation Biology uses noninvasive genetic and physiological tools to measure wildlife health over large territories.  This is being done without capturing or tagging any animals.  The key is, instead of searching for the animals themselves, dogs are trained to find what endangered animals have left behind – their scat.  Earlier this year Prof. Wasser was written-up in the Seattle Metro Magazine as "The Dr. of Doo."  Despite the chuckles and jokes, the information that can be found by looking at scat is really quite amazing.

"The scat, in some ways, carries more comprehensive physiological information about animals then blood," explains Wasser.  When products are secreted in the blood they are metabolized quickly, so a blood sample may only show a brief snapshot of the overall health of the animal.  But in the digestive system, products are excreted out through the bile where it pools and small differences accumulate, giving a more integrated estimate of the animal's health over time.  The Center's lab can determine the sex of the animal, reproductive cycles, stress levels, nutritional pressures, presence of disease, and the territory the animal covers.  They can also determine the abundance and distribution of wildlife over large landscapes. The tracking dogs can even differentiate between individuals of the same species, eliminating the need for more expensive DNA measures in many instances.

This is why scat is being used by Wasser's lab for "wildlife forensics," a term you might associate with a police beat and crime scene. In fact they are actually working in coordination with INTERPOL to catch criminals. The Center is actively making a huge conservation impact by working to stop ivory poachers who kill thousands of elephants each year for their tusks.    

In the last two years the amount of elephant poaching has sky rocketed, driven by a huge demand for ivory in China and the Far East, including Japan.  Mostly the ivory is used to make hand-sized "stamps" with specialized individual seals on them called hAnkos or chops.  Though they are not all made of ivory, These signature seals are often required by many Asian banks to open new accounts, and having an ivory hAnko is considered a sign of prestige. 
The cost of ivory has also sky rocketed, from $200 per kilo in 2004 to $850 per kilo in 2007.  Investors are even starting to buy ivory stocks.  There are huge loopholes in the laws for the ivory trade.  It is only illegal to transport ivory across the border, but once inside the country it can be sold legally. 

The high demand plus the soaring price has created a huge growth in organized crime for harvesting and transporting ivory.  In one year, (Aug. 2005 -- Aug. 2006) customs authorities busted illegal transportation of 25,000 kg of ivory.  They estimate that this is only 10% of what was actually moved, a startling increase that a higher percentage of elephants are being killed now then occurred prior to the 1989 ivory ban. 

INTERPOL asked the Center to assist in the investigation of a large seizure, 6.5 tons (6,500 kg) of ivory tusks.  The lab compared DNA from the seized ivory to DNA from samples of elephant scat collected from the entire continent of Africa.  The scat samples allowed the lab to create a "genetic map" of elephant gene frequency, showing different herds, individuals, and their territories.  They were missing samples from Zambia and Malawi, but with some collection assistance from local park rangers, they were able to finish the mapping project in just two weeks to speed the research toward catching the ivory poaching rings.

It was evident where the ivory was being shipped from by the bills of lading attached to the seized shipments.  But where were the elephants killed to harvest their ivory?  Investigators first thought because of the large size of the seizure and tusks that they were from many sources across Africa.  But after comparing the ivory samples to the genetic map that the Center had produced, they found genetic evidence which changed the search altogether, and the focus of the investigation.  All the seized ivory was from herds of elephants slaughtered in and around Zambia. 

The average sized tusks found from the ivory seizure weighed 11 kilos. It takes an elephant 30 years to grow tusks that size, and the larger tusks weighing 10-15 kg, came from elephants that may have been 50 years old or more. 

First, poachers kill the big bulls then they go for the large female matriarchs because these individuals have the largest tusks. These older female elephants normally play a very important role in the social integrity of the herd; they suppress the reproduction of females too young to have healthy births, maintain the competitive ability of the herd, and carry years of knowledge of where to find drinking water and other resources in times of drought.  

"People don't realize how social, intelligent, and aware elephants are," says Wasser.  Young males are left with no leader to guide them or keep them in line.  Young females can't join other herds because different families are not allowed in.  They are stuck leading solitary lives.  Wasser's graduate student, Kathleen Gobush found that the extreme amount of poaching has left so many solitary adult females, some of which have found each other and joined together in loose groups, but will never acquire the close relationships and bonds formed with their natural family herd. 

Wasser and his team worked to develop a comprehensive plan to stop poachers from killing more elephants. Part of the problem with illegal poaching is that government officials are paid off and no one gets taken to court.  Also, after the ivory ban had been in effect for several years, western support of law enforcement was decreased.  Poaching began to rise again in response to the loss of foreign aid.  Wasser's plan was to work with law enforcement to increase police in the areas hardest hit by poachers.  The other problem is the demand for ivory from Asia, the major market where over 60% of the ivory is being used to produce hAnkos.  The Center plans to work with other non-government organizations to launch a media campaign involving prominent Asian figures coming out publicly against the use of ivory hAnkos, simultaneously exposing the destructive methods that are used to obtain ivory for these cultural symbols of wealth. 

The science in this plan was well done and interested the press.  It was published in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS).  Wasser was invited to give a presentation on how to shut down the illegal ivory trade at the next meeting of the Convention on International Trade and Endangered Species (CITES) a division of the UN, to take place in the Netherlands this June.

In the meantime, Wasser and the Center continue their work studying other endangered species.  Teams of tracking dogs and their handlers are sent out all over the world; Canada, Brazil, Gabon, California, and even into the ocean.  They have even successfully been able to track whales by sending the dogs out on boats.  In Seattle, they made the news last fall for their work tracking Orcas (killer whales), and their work using dogs to track right whales was published in Cetacean Research and Management magazine 8(2): 121-125 2006.

"When a dog smells the whale scat, you have to hold the leash to keep him from jumping into the water," describes Wasser.  Then when the boat moves out of the right wind direction the dog looses the scent and instantly looses his excitement.  By watching the reaction of the dog compared to the boat heading, the team is able to triangulate the location of the whale scat and collect it before it sinks.

All this work requires special dogs that are hard to find and train.  They find only four out of 1000 dogs that have the right "play drive" with focus on a tennis ball.  Most are rescued from the pound because the high energy dogs are often too difficult to keep as pets.  These rescued dogs learn to find animal scat and are rewarded with a ball. The Center has established a new dog training facility at the UW – PAC Forest Center for Sustainable Forestry in Eatonville.  This 4,300 acreage is ideal to train dogs to locate scat of different species over large remote areas.

The Center also helped develop a teacher's education packet for high school students based on the genetic mapping technique used in Africa.  Working with funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Fred Hutch, teens learn to track elephants just like real scientists. The teacher packet is used to introduce students to the power of PCR, encouraging them to learn how to amplify DNA in the lab.  It has really interested high school students in conservation issues by giving them first hand experience with this real situation.  It has also convinced several students to pursue a college degree in science. Wasser hopes to soon expand this program for middle school students. 

A related educational program is being planned from the Center to educate children in developing countries in South America and Africa.  Kids love the dogs – and this program will take advantage of their amazing scat dog program to introduce children to real biology, conservation, and health issues.  They are promoting global health to the most important audience, the citizens of the future.

~Article and photograph by Liorah Wichser