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How a UW geneticist is saving elephants with poop

The world is dealing with an unprecedented spike in illegal wildlife trade, threatening to overturn decades of conservation gains. A UW geneticist is fighting to change that... with poop.

When Sam Wasser, Director of the University of Washington's Center for Conservation Biology, suggested a way to stop elephant poaching, he knew it was going to be a hard sell. Because it was going to involve going through a whole lot of dung. Literally.

Bill Radke interviews Sam Wasser on 'The Record,' Tuesday, June 11, 2019

As Wasser told Bill Radke on KUOW’s The Record, “What people often don't appreciate is the fact that feces is the most accessible wildlife product in nature, and there's just a lot of it there. And most of the processes going on in the body, you have to get rid of those byproducts, and feces is one way that you get rid of it.”

And you can do a lot with those byproducts. “If you want to figure out where ivory came from based on the DNA in the ivory samples, you need to have a reference map that tells you how populations can be separated genetically,” explains Wasser. “Essentially, we've collected thousands of dung samples across the entire continent of Africa, genotyped them with two multiple genetic markers and then we get the same DNA out of ivory."

Illegal wildlife trade is now the fourth largest transnational organized crime there is. It’s up there with narcotics law and human trafficking. With the maps Sam has created, authorities can trace ivory confiscated from poachers back to their source, getting within 180 miles of the actual location of the elephant. However, what law enforcement does with that information is a little more complicated.

“One of the biggest obstacles to this kind of work is the lack of cooperation between law enforcement,” says Wasser. “It is one of the most frustrating things that we experience. They are just competing with each other to be the ones to break the case instead of cooperating with one another.”

Between the creation of an elephant map and hunting down criminals, Wasser’s life sounds like a movie. Luckily, one’s already been made about him, “The Last Animals.”