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Samuel K. Wasser, 62, a zoologist at the University of Washington, is a Sherlock Holmes of the wildlife trade. With modern biochemical tools and old-fashioned shoe leather, he sleuths out the merchants behind the market for poached animal products.
Dr. Wasser’s work is funded by the Paul G. Allen Foundation, the State Department and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. We spoke for three hours at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington and later by telephone.
A condensed and edited version of our conversations follows.
Q. What is your actual profession?
A. I’m a conservation biologist, a professor and a research scientist. Among things my lab does is forensic analysis using DNA to determine the origins of elephant ivory seized by international law enforcement.
If customs officers in Singapore or Vietnam intercept a large shipment — let’s say a half-ton or more — of poached ivory, I’ll be called in to see what we can learn from it. Lately, people in my lab have started applying what we’ve learned about how the ivory trade works to pangolins.
They are an African and Asian mammal the size of a cocker spaniel. It is, probably, the most poached animal in the world. It is killed for its meat and its scales, which in Asia are thought to have medicinal value. They are highly threatened.
How did you become a wildlife detective?
Long story. In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, I was in Mikumi National Park in Tanzania, studying competition among female baboons. As part of that, I developed a technology to extract hormones from baboon feces. This was useful for measuring their stress, fertility and nutrition without actually handling them.
At the same time I did this, ivory poaching was exploding all over Africa. These were the years when more than 700,000 elephants were slaughtered. I worked in a protected area, and yet wherever I went I saw elephant carcasses. I started thinking, “God, if only I could apply the baboon tests to elephant conservation, that would be wonderful.”
Figuring out how to do that took many years. However, in 1997, my lab and others published papers showing how to extract DNA from feces. Because elephant stools are large and easy to find, this allowed me to map elephant genetics across the continent.
A year later, we succeeded in getting DNA out of ivory. Now I could compare the DNA in the seized tusks to the genetic map. It was finally possible to use science to show where the contraband had originated.
How accurate is your test?
I can take a tusk from anywhere in Africa and trace its origins to within 300 kilometers of where that elephant was killed, often to the very park or reserve.
This has given us a new understanding of how ivory trade works. From what we’ve learned, organized bands of poachers appear to kill over and over again at the same sites. They operate in places with lots of elephants, where they can move in easily without getting caught and where they have a way of getting the tusks out of the country, which implies, often, some kind of high-level corruption.
This is actionable intelligence. If you know that contraband ivory comes from one pinpointed site, it tells you where the next poaching event will be. Sometimes you can stop it by sending in armed rangers.
However, the poachers are often better armed. They’ve got AK-47s, night goggles, sometimes even helicopters.
This is major organized crime. Interpol says that the wildlife trade is the fourth-largest type of transnational crime, right after weapons, narcotics and human trafficking.
Where are the poaching hot spots you mentioned?
Poaching is going on all over Africa. Over the last decade, all of the large ivory seizures I’ve analyzed showed that 22 percent of it came from forest elephants in Gabon and the Congo, and 78 percent from an area centered in Tanzania. Between 2002 and 2007, we identified Zambia as another poaching hot spot.
Knowing this can impact policy. For example, in 2007 and 2010 Tanzania and Zambia applied to the United Nations agency regulating trade in wildlife products — it is called Cites — for permission to sell their stockpiled ivory. Their diplomats claimed that they were working rigorously to curb poaching.
Forensic reports from our group and from colleagues showed that large amounts of contraband came from Tanzania and, at that time, Zambia. Both petitions were unsuccessful.
Have your investigations helped with the prosecution of poachers and smugglers?
So far, we’ve had one major conviction in Africa with our DNA evidence. This was someone alleged to be the largest ivory dealer in West Africa. He was caught in Togo. They raided his warehouse, and I analyzed those samples.
I showed the tusks came from multiple countries, and a colleague showed that the ivory was from recently killed animals. He got the stiffest sentence in Togo: two years in prison and a fine. He’s already out.
Is the sale of ivory legal in the United States?
There are several states that have bans on ivory sales — New York, California, Washington. And just a week ago, the federal government enacted a near total ban on selling African elephant ivory across state lines. That means that someone in Kentucky can’t legally sell an ivory piece to someone in Virginia.
However, they can sell permitted ivory to a Kentucky buyer. Also, there are some exceptions to the ban: musical instruments, furniture and firearms that use less than 200 grams of ivory, antique pieces. Game hunters with permits can bring two elephant trophies into the country every year.
In my opinion, we need legislation that says: No sales, period, because the loopholes can be a problem. If you go to Hawaii, the stores are full of gleaming white ivory. When you ask if it’s legal, the salespeople say, “It’s antique.”
Does your work ever get to you?
Not long ago, I’d just returned from Singapore, where I’d sampled a 4.6-ton seizure of ivory. In three rushed days, I’d washed, weighed, aligned and tested representative samples of what was left of about a thousand dead elephants.
There are probably only about 400,000 still alive in all of Africa. Some of these tusks were so little they didn’t even weigh a pound — babies.
Back home, after I arrived in Seattle, there was a celebration with Paul Allen’s people about having won a Washington statewide initiative banning ivory sales. I looked at all these nice people in the room drinking wine and thought, “You have no idea how bad this is.” I had to leave.