Sam Wasser. Photograph by Fred Felleman
Place of Birth: Detroit, Michigan
Current Home: Seattle, Washington
Occupation: Professor and Director, Center for Conservation Biology, University of Washington
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
How did you get started in the field?
I did my first field study in Kenya, on lions, at the age of 19 and fell in love with Africa.
What is a typical day like for you?
I answer emails in the morning, then head into the university to do data analyses, writing, computer, and administrative work. When in the field, I'm up and out early, with lots of walking.
What inspires you to dedicate your life to elephants?
I worked for nearly 20 years in the Mikumi/Selous ecosystem of Tanzania. This is the largest protected area in Africa and was home to Africa's largest elephant population until it was hammered by poachers. The poaching started to escalate in 1979, around the same time I began working there. I was amazed by the intelligence and strong social bonds among the elephants and horrified as poaching ripped apart the family groups. Meanwhile, I began developing noninvasive physiological and genetic tools to study wildlife health and abundance by measuring hormones and DNA shed in their feces. I soon realized that I could also use these measures to assess the impacts of poaching. The more I applied these methods, the more convinced I became of their power to make a difference.
What has been your favorite experience in the field?
While conducting my Ph.D. work on wild baboons, I observed a subadult male walk up to a cassia plant and make a vocalization indicating that he saw a snake. I walked up to the bush and checked. A large venomous snake was coiled at the base of the bush. Just then, the subadult's mother came walking toward him. The male quickly approached her, put his arm around her, and led her to the bush, making the snake vocalization the entire time. They both looked at the snake, made the snake vocalization to each other, and walked away shoulder to shoulder, vocalizing all the while. The son saw the snake, showed his mom, and they both walked away seemingly enjoying the moment.
Do you have a hero?
Yes, Nelson Mandela. He fought for what he believed was right, at all costs. He was instrumental in ending apartheid, and when he became South Africa's first post-apartheid president, he would not allow South Africa to participate in the first one-off ivory sale sanctioned by CITES.
Why is it important to stop the illegal ivory trade?
Elephants are incredible creatures. Their loss will severely reduce revenue from ecotourism and could have potentially devastating impacts on the environment. Elephants are major habitat architects, maintaining the open savanna, creating trails and water holes, and promoting biodiversity by dispersing large seeds in both savanna and forest habitats. Many species have co-evolved to depend upon these actions. Their loss could even impact the world's climate. Elephants are the principal dispersers of the large seeds dropped from trees in the Central African rain forest. These massive forests are the second most important in the world for carbon capture. With over 90 percent of the forest elephants killed by poachers during the last 50 years, these large seeds are unable to disperse, making them highly vulnerable to predation and disease. The resultant loss of young trees means that old trees are not being replaced when they die. This could seriously impact the carbon-capture capacity of Central Africa's forests, raising temperatures, increasing drought, and reducing food availability. These are just a few of the many reasons why loss of elephants matters.
How does DNA mapping contribute to elephant conservation?
DNA mapping allows us to identify the major poaching hot spots across Africa so that we can direct law enforcement to these areas and prevent the elephants from being killed. The DNA map describes the genetic differences that characterize different elephant populations across Africa. We use these differences to determine the origin of large ivory seizures by extracting the same types of DNA from the ivory and matching it to the area that is most similar in the DNA reference map. We concentrate on very large ivory seizures because they represent the loss of massive numbers of elephants and bear the signature of organized crime. Having identified where the mass killings are taking place, we can then target these areas for law enforcement and make sure that the countries where the poaching is occurring are doing all they can to stop it.
If you could have people do one thing to help save elephants, what would it be?
Stop buying ivory!