UW News

April 10, 2018

UW’s Samuel Wasser receives prestigious Albert Schweitzer Medal

UW News

A University of Washington professor has been awarded the prestigious Albert Schweitzer Medal for his work for developing noninvasive tools for monitoring human impacts on wildlife. Samuel K. Wasser was honored in a ceremony in Washington, D.C., Tuesday evening. The award was presented by Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell.

“I’m just heartened. It’s very hard work to do. It’s stressful and frustrating,” Wasser said. “The award really makes me happy.”

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Samuel K. WasserUniversity of Washington

Wasser holds the endowed chair in Conservation Biology at the UW, where he is a professor in the Department of Biology and director of the Center for Conservation Biology.

He has pioneered noninvasive methods to measure the abundance, distribution and physiological condition of wildlife from their feces, relying on detection dogs to locate these samples over large wilderness areas. The work has earned him the nickname “the Guru of Doo Doo.”

“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,” Wasser said. “Unable to just stand by, 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. I am deeply honored to have those efforts now be acknowledged by receipt of the Albert Schweitzer Medal.”

Awarded by the Animal Welfare Institute, past medal recipients include Jane Goodall and Rachel Carson, among others.

“Dr. Wasser’s groundbreaking work has paved the way for remarkable strides in the fight against wildlife trafficking, especially ivory trade,” said Cathy Liss, president of the Animal Welfare Institute. “The Animal Welfare Institute feels privileged to have this opportunity to acknowledge his accomplishments with the Albert Schweitzer Medal.”

Wasser’s wildlife field methods address diverse conservation questions, including impacts of poaching, oil development and overfishing on the well-being of multiple endangered wildlife populations. He also applies these tools to forensic analyses of transnational wildlife crime.

“It’s another affirmation of Sam’s work,” said Bruce Weir, a professor of biostatistics in the UW School of Public Health, of the accolade. “This gives UW another feather in its cap, pointing to the tremendous breadth of expertise we have here.”

Notably, Wasser used elephant dung to assemble a DNA reference map of elephants across Africa, which is now widely used to determine the geographic origins of poached ivory. By comparing genotyped ivory to this reference map, he has been able to identify Africa’s largest elephant poaching hotspots, track the number and connectivity of major ivory traffickers operating in Africa, and uncover strategies that transnational organized crime syndicates use to acquire and move their contraband around the world.

“The award is saying that they are understanding the value of this approach, and this approach started at the UW,” Wasser said.

This work has led to prosecutions of major transnational ivory traffickers and nurtured key collaborations with the International Consortium on Combatting Wildlife Crime, INTERPOL, U.S. Homeland Security Investigations, the Task Force on Combatting Wildlife Trafficking, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Department of State and wildlife authorities in numerous source and transit countries across Africa and Asia.

“It was Sam’s science that really clinched this,” said Elliott L. Harbin, program manager, Environmental Crimes, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Homeland Security Investigations.


For information on how to obtain photographs of the award ceremony, please contact media@awionline.org or call 202-337-2332.