In this week’s interview, Chief Correspondent Steve Scher talks with biologist Samuel Wasser about the illegal ivory trade and the threat it poses to the endangered elephant population. Wasser outlines scientific tools being developed to track poachers and determine the locations and regions where they’re getting their ivory. They discuss the tactics used for combating poachers, such as reducing demand for ivory and tracking the locations of ivory supplies before they’ve been confiscated or shipped. Wasser expresses his faith in the diversity of people’s interests, and the need for everyone to pursue those interests in order to combat the innumerable issues of the world—everything from ivory poaching to cancer to climate change.
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Welcome to town hall Seattle’s podcast in the moment where we talk with folks coming to our stages and give you a glimpse into their topic, personality and interests. I’m your host, Ginny Palmer. The last week of January, 2020 is quickly approaching and we’ve got some very interesting programs on our calendar about homelessness, American oligarchs and contemporary poetry followed by a youth speaks poetry slam on the 31st for more information about these events to get tickets or to see what else is on our calendar. Go to our website at town hall, seattle.org elephants are smart, family oriented and relentlessly hunted by poachers, seemingly intent on wiping them out. The numbers are grim, but international and us law enforcement agencies, NGOs, governments, and committed scientists like the university of Washington Samuel Wasser are fighting to save wild elephants. Wasser is renowned for bringing remarkable tools to the field. He has pioneered noninvasive techniques, even training dogs to track elephants by their scat, allowing scientists to identify family groups and even individuals through their DNA. He has helped develop techniques that allow law enforcement to track poached ivory across continents and oceans. With these tools. He’s helping bring poachers to justice. The wildlife photographer, art Wolf and Samuel Wasser have produced a new coffee table sized book, wild elephants conservation in the age of extinction. They come to town hall on Wednesday, January 29th to talk about the work being done to save the remaining wild elephants. Our chief correspondent, Steve Cher, sat down with dr Wasser at his office on the UDaB campus.
What are those in the corner there? So those are
not real cus they’re casts of real tests. And um, I don’t know if my, uh, they were real Tufts at one point and one of my best friends who’s now actually port commissioner in Seattle was at a garage sale. You probably know. I’m Fred Feldman and he found them one day and he bought them for me. So they’re, they’re casts. Yeah, they’re amazing. I really lifelike. So I, um, I keep them there as, as a memory of how big cus have been historically.
Yeah. Well that’s something that, I mean, you’ll forget. I mean, I saw a picture from, was it 2018, I’m looking to very ours articles. I saw a picture of you standing in front of a pile of Tufts from was the 2018 or 2015 it was the, the uh, most recent large seizure.
Um, well there I suspect that was the burning of the ivory and Kenya. The a hundred tons of ivory. So in, in Nairobi, that might’ve been the picture you saw. I don’t know there, there’s lots of those pictures of me. Yeah. Cause there’s lots of seizures that we do.
Yeah. There was an article in Sierra club magazine and it said the will to save the elephants was the headline and it was about you and art Wolf. I thought it was an interesting way to be hopeful in the face of, you know, reasons not to be hopeful. So why? Because that seems so hard.
Well, you know, it, it’s kind of, it’s a funny thing. It’s a mixture of horror and eh, in, in what’s going on and believing that we’ve got a tool that can make a big difference and ultimately stop it. Um, you know, the hope, the hope is that elephants will recover, uh, if we can stop this illegal trade in and it, it just put it in perspective. I’m there. There’s 400,000 elephants left in Africa right now. Um, that’s down from 1.3 million in 1979. So there’s 400,000 elephants left and there’s 40,000 elephants still being killed each year. So it’s bad. And when you
productively, they’re not, they’re gonna fall behind ever further.
You betcha. And, and the, and you know, there’s two, there’s really two species of African elephants. So African elephants are the ones that are most heavily poach. Asian elephants, not, not so much, you know, being able to F to figure out, you know, why is this, why does this continue to happen? And, and, you know, where are the concentrations of poaching? Who’s the big guys moving this ivory? And can we really do something about it? Is, is really important? And, and, um, I feel like, you know, I was very lucky in that, um, in the late nineties, I, I was driven to develop these new methods. And, um, uh, not, not for elephants per se, but just in general to, um, I’m always been trying to, uh, get as much information from wildlife about their physiology and their genetics with, without touching them at all. Um, and so I focus on their scat, their feces.
And, um, in the mid eighties, I developed ways to get stress and reproductive nutrition hormones from feces. And then I realized, Oh, that’s the most accessible animal product there is. I’ve got this gold mine here. And then I thought if we could only get DNA out of the samples that would make all the difference in the world. And by 1997, we had cracked that nut. And, and essentially at that point, uh, you know, I had been working in doing my PhD work in Southern Tanzania starting in 1979 in the most poached area in Africa. And I worked there until 2000 through the, you know, two massive waves of poaching. And, um, it, you know, I kept thinking, you know, baboons are a really interesting animal to study, but they’re, they’re kind of ermine and I was very conservation oriented and working on foot and running across poachers and, and you know, carcasses all the time and seeing how amazing these elephants were.
And I just kept thinking that we’ve got to figure out a plan here. And, and when, you know, almost immediately when we got DNA from the dung, I thought, okay, I can map where ivory is being poached because you know, elephant dung sample weighs like 25 pounds. So it’s easy to spot. And we were able, and by that time I had been working for a long time in Africa, I had lots of connections and I just sent the word out and say, bring me your shit essentially. And, and essentially we were able to create a DNA map of elephants for across the whole continent of Africa. And we were able to then, since we knew where every sample came from, we could actually see, well how good are we at using this information to identify the origin of a, of an ivory tusk. And so, you know, you know, basically the way that this works is that, uh, you know, populations, even us, we’re always experiencing mutations and they accumulate over time and populations that are separated.
The farther part they’re separated, the, the less mixing between the, the populations and the more genetically unique those mutations, uh, make them, uh, once we had gotten this map, we could see, well how good are we at at using the DNA to tell where they came from. So we would take all the samples from a location, we’d take half of them out of our genetic map and then we would, you know, recreate the, the maps used to make gene frequencies for each population. And then we would take the other half and we would use those genotypes and put it into our statistical program. We developed and say, how close to the actual origin did we get? And we showed that we could get a sample from an elephant from anywhere in Africa to within 180 miles of where it came from. So when you consider you can put five United States and Africa, that’s pretty damn precise.
And so now we knew we had a great tool and uh, the other hitch was to be able to get DNA out of ivory. And it was just a couple of years later that we also crack that nut. And, and um, it was kind of fun because I love collaborating with people and that’s part of why I love being at the universities. There’s some buddy, you know, anything you need, there’s somebody here doing it. And I went to the dental school and I went to the social Dean and I said, Hey, do you know anybody getting DNA out of teeth? He goes, yeah, there’s this guy up in British Columbia. I was doing it and I wrote him and we were able to modify the method for ivory. Then we, we essentially could, uh, get the genotype from a test and compare it to our DNA map. And we could tell where the Tufts came from.
Why does that help in the end to try to save elephants? Poaching is going on all over Africa. And so if you’re just kind of spreading your resources thin, trying to figure it out, that’s a problem. If we could figure out how you know is, are there places that are more poached than others? That’s very important. And especially we want to know where do these major transnational criminals moving large volumes of ivory, where are they getting all their stuff from? So 70% of all ivory, that seized by government authorities is in shipments of a minimum of a half a ton of ivory between two to 500 toss. It depends on the size. Of course, as the tusk gets smaller, it’s more dust. But, but the point is is that is that they were moved in these big shipments and so we have always restricted our work to ivory seizures that are a minimum of a half a ton.
So these are seizures that are worth at least $1 million. They are massive. So it means they’re pulling out lots of Tufts doing lots of damage. And these are from traffickers who could afford to lose $1 million at a single pop. Who are the international cartel criminals at this point? Well, many of them are the same. Criminal cartels move in all kinds of other contraband people, narcotics, you know, people specialize, but they also dip into other forms of contraband. But they’re also investors. So if there is, um, um, conservative, the estimate that there’s, um, uh, 10% of the ivory that’s seized, uh, uh, 10% of the Ivy that’s smuggled gets seized and there’s 40 tons of ivory seized each year. So that means there’s 400 tons of ivory moving each year. So if you look at what’s ending up in the shops and the people buying these little necklaces and braces bracelets, that’s, that’s not 400 tons a year worth of ivory.
These investors are buying big Tufts and they’re stockpiling them, we believe, and they’re hoping for elephant extinction so that they can then sell this ivory as an investment like gold. It’s pathetic. There’s another element to this that that shows how difficult this is. So most of this ivory that I’m talking about in art is containerized. It’s moved on shipping containers and big ships. And there are 1 billion containers moving around the world each year right now. And so if you are a transnational criminal, all you gotta do is get your contraband into container, get it past customs. So you just got to pay off one, one or two people, and then you’re virtually assured that it’s going to make it to its final destination. Because even in the U S we can inspect about 2% of the containers that pass through at the most. I mean, you imagine a place like Singapore where 35 million containers pass through each year, how many of them, and they get lots of ivory seizures.
How many of you think they’re getting relative to what’s actually moving through there? So we wanted to develop a way to, to fix that problem. And then what we wanted to do was to figure, can we get the ivory before it gets into transit? Can we prevent it from getting into trans? So when we started looking at these big seizures and figuring out where were they coming from, we quickly had major breakthroughs. The first thing that we found was that, um, virtually all the ivory in these large seizures were coming from just two places. 78% of the ivory is coming from uh, Tanzania going from Northern Mozambique at its Southern border through Tanzania up into, uh, Southern Kenya. But really Tanzania was the focus. They had the biggest protected areas and the most elephants. So 78% of the elephants from that area. And then forest elephants, the other species of African elephants, a 22% of the remain of the seizures was forced elephants as opposed to 78 Savannah.
And that was all coming from an area we call the Triton, which is Northeast Gabon, Northwest Republican Congo, and Southeast Cameroon. That’s the last stronghold of forest elephants. The forest elephants had been virtually annihilated. They, 95% of the elephants have been killed in the last 50 years. There, their tests are more valuable because there are a lot denser. And the problem with the forest elephant also for their recovery is they don’t have their first birth until they’re 23 years old, whereas a Savanna often has it a 12. So it takes a long time to recover from that loss. So the first big finding was that people thought that when they were, when, when these traffickers were moving these big quantities of ivory, that they were cherry picking across Africa, pulling Irish from all these different places to get enough for a big Shipman and moving it out.
We showed that’s not what’s happening. They keep going back to the same place over and over again, poaching repeatedly. And, and we eventually show that there are these criteria that we, we call hotspots, poaching hotspots. So I mentioned there’s really two major ones in Africa and what makes a hotspot, it’s gotta be a very big protected area. Um, and, and, um, the, it’s got to have lots of elephants so you can go back and poach there repeatedly and it’s big enough so that the Rangers can’t find you. So having those kinds of features is really important. So Southern Tanzania, which was the largest protected area in Africa, SA the solu game reserve where, where hunt went population went from 100,000 elephants to 12,000 elephants in like a 10 year period. Um, is an example of that. And then, you know, these poachers are only have as much ivory as they can carry.
And so how does it get from the poacher to these guys that are moving multiple tons of ivory out? And one of the other things that we found very quickly, so not only did we find that they were, um, poaching the same areas over and over again, and that those areas are very, very slow to change because as I said, for the past decade, those hotspots didn’t change. Um, we also showed that in almost every case where the ivory was exported in multiple tons was always in a different country from where the ivory was poached. It was a neighboring country. They’d move it up to there as kind of a risk reduction strategy, consolidated it and move it out. So we were able to show that there’s kind of this loose pyramid that goes on where you’ve got the trafficker at the port that’s moving this stuff out, the big guy.
And then he’s got these people that he pays that essentially are going down and they’re collecting the ivory from these middlemen who are then going and buying the Ivy from the poacher, you know, and essentially moving it from this broad pyramid of all these different poachers and consolidating it to the neighboring country before they move it out of the country. What’s the most effective or hopeful strategy to break that chain? So here’s what happened, even though they’re storing this for their hope for extinction of the creatures. So that’s the great question. And that was our next finding. You know, when you’re analyzing these ivory seizures, um, it costs about $110 to genotype, fully genotype a tusk. So to do, um, a big seizure of 200, two of 2000 tests at 110 each, obviously you would go broke very quickly. So we had to develop a way to representatively sample those, the tests.
In a seizure. And one of the first things that we do was we is, I developed a way to visually identify the two tests from the same elephant. It’s a pretty straightforward method that we developed so that anyone could do it. And when we were analyzing, you know, pull sampling these tests, um, um, for these large ivory seizures, I noticed that over half of the tusks in these seizures did not have a pair. You know, the other tusk from the same elephant was gone. And I thought, well, where is that? I realized by this time we had about 45 large ivory seizures in our lab that were fully genotyped. And I thought, well, I wonder if they’re in any of the other seizures that we have. And bam, like within a couple of hours we had the result and we found lots of matches, you know, of the, you know, the two Tufts from the same elephant in separate seizures.
And every single case, those two shipments went out of the same port close in time. And when we looked at where the origin of those ivory came from, from our genotyping, we found that they always were coming from the same place. So that loose pyramid I was describing, you know, essentially this big guy is pulling this ivory out continuously and between the time the poachers get the ivory and it gets up to the export, the two tusks get separated very often. And because there’s this one big kingpin, they still end up in his coffer. It’s just they arrive at different times and he ships them out in separate shipments often. And so by linking those shipments together and then linking other shipments together, similarly like links in a chain, we were able to pull out the three biggest ivory cartels working in Africa. And the biggest one we got convicted to 20 years in prison.
This big guy who I’m talking about, his name was Faisal Mohammed Ali, and we connected them to over 11 ivory seizures. So he goes to prison. Yeah. And then two years later he gets acquitted by a, uh, um, presumably corrupt magistrate. But there were all these irregularities in the trial. So he’s one guy, there’s two, three others, big guys, and you got him in prison and then he gets out. Have you slowed the, the slaughter at all by, through these efforts? There’s somebody else just come in and take over. This slider has been slowed, but, but it’s kind of like a whack-a-mole. One of the big things that eventually has happened was, um, we definitely slowed the slaughter in East Africa where the lion’s share of poaching had been occurring. Um, and that’s only as of the last year or two. Um, you know, we’ve been doing this for over well over a decade now.
This slaughter in, uh, central Africa has not changed. Um, if anything, it’s increased. One of the things that our most recent work has shown is that the poaching is moving South into Botswana. The area of, uh, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Zambia that, you know, connecting countries, um, has 230,000 elephants. There’s 400,000 left in Africa. Um, most of those places that had been fenced and they have artificial waterhole. So you had an artificial growth of those populations. And now we’ve shown for the first time that that hotspot is starting to shift South. What’s that telling you about the ability not to be playing? Why whack them all over time? The way this work goes, like any type of sciences that you know, you think you’re making a big difference and then you go, why didn’t it make a bigger difference than I expected? You know, when we first identified the poaching hotspots, I thought, Oh all the country now needs to do is just go to those areas and get them.
Well, you know, these are big areas. These poachers are hard to find. Um, you get one poacher out and when you catch a poacher, he’s only got at most 10 tests with them. Cause you know, that’s all the group with them can carry. I mean you can carry to Tufts if you’re a person, you know, maybe three or four but, but not many. Then there’s all these other poachers waiting to take their place and they often get their bail covered and then they split. So it’s just an endless game. Um, so that was one of the big problems. And then finding these guys and, and, and dealing with the corruption. Cause these are big powerful people. They’re, they’re multi-millionaires in places where there’s not a lot of money and it’s easy to pay people off. It doesn’t take much money to pay someone off. When we started to connect these networks, not only did we see that individual cartels were moving multiple shipments, we also showed that they were different cartels were connected.
And so who’s driving that? Is there some bigger guy yet that’s kind of getting them to work together? Well, yeah, and that’s where we are moving. Now I should mention that our primary collaborator in this work is the, uh, department of Homeland security. Oh really? So we work with, um, the, um, the environmental crime division of Homeland security, um, in their Homeland security investigations is the name of that network. We collaborate very, very closely. They’ve got over 250 agents, uh, around the world, 600 agents total. And those agents working around the world are very focused on transnational criminal organizations. And one of the things that, that when we develop these matching techniques to connecting these, these shipments to multiple, um, criminal networks that really got Homeland security excited because one of the most powerful tools that they have is, is financial crime investigations. And this is a really, really powerful tool in any of these countries.
It becomes a major crime and Homeland security has unique authority to, to um, go into bank records and to, to explore as long as their criminal can be suspect to a broken us law. Well, what does it take to break the U S law? You just have to operate in us currency one time and then you broke us loft to move an illegal shipment. It doesn’t matter where it happened and most criminals operate in us currency. So means that, that what, what are kind of marriage has done is that we taking advantage of these, this population differentiation and our ability to track it and, and, and we can look at how all this ivory is actually moving and where did it start? Where did it go through, where did it end up? And so that, and how many connections are there? All of those are roots to be explored by financial crime investigations.
And so we are going back and we’re building this this more, more carefully. There’s one more piece. Well, this individual sample matching was a very powerful tool and still is a very powerful tool because you, you, you know that those two tests were poached at the same time, the same animal, it came from the same protected area. One of the problems as I mentioned, because the stuff that work is very expensive. We are only sampling about 20 to 30% of the Tufts on average out of any shipment. So that means that the probability of my getting both tests from the same animal in two separate seizures is about 20% of 20% or 30% of 30% so where’s between four and 9% chance? So a lot of these matches I miss well, it then occurred to me, I started working, I, I work very closely with people in a department of bio statistics here and one of them, Bruce, where’s an expert in familial matching. So familial matching, you know, has recently been, um, they cut, well I think one of the mass murder or recently doing familial matching. Um, and we started developing these familial matching techniques for our ivory, realizing that very close relatives, females in particular, you know, stay in their family group for life. So now we’re matching tusks between parents and offspring, full siblings and half siblings that are found in separate shipments and it allows us many more opportunities to get a match. And the connectivity that we have shown in these networks is mind boggling.
There is one guy or a few guys at the top with lots of money who are controlling this. The idea being what? That at some point you can get those people break those cartels and maybe then the whole system crumbles. Yeah.
By financial crime investigations is going to be the most likely tool. And that’s really what we are. We’re putting all our eggs in that basket right now. But the science is driving, you know, because we’re getting all the networks sure. That there’s lots of forensic evidence. So you can see this poster on my wall and each one of those little post-its is some other forensic evidence. Oh, same shipper move this tusk, a same cell phone was used. What, what have you. Um, so there’s lots of those little post-its, but those are, um, kind of death by a thousand cuts kind of thing. When you get them genetic match, that’s a solid connection. And then all of those other forensic bits of evidence become much more
assured. Do you know who the top people are? Do you guys already have suspects or even individuals?
Yeah, absolutely. I, well this is getting beyond my area, but my colleagues absolutely do know who they are. I know them too, but I, I, um,
so the idea is that we break these, these cartels, we get these people in prison. Yeah. And, and so this is where we started. Is that what makes you have the will to hope that you’re on a path?
Exactly. That is exactly what does that, you know, and, and th there’s, um, a really interesting thing that, that, um, we’ve, we’ve just now found, um, is that so when Faisal was put in jail, um, not to, you know, around the same time there was another major ivory traffic or put away to her name was the queen of ivory. It was, she was all over the press. And um, she was kinda working in Tanzania getting the stuff up to Faisal and others. Um, and when both of them were put in jail around the same time, all of a sudden we started to see a new modus operandi happening. One of the things that started happening was we started to see ivory seizures that were in Howard out teak logs. The tusks were cut into sections, put in the logs and embedded in wax and then cover it up.
And you could not tell this at all and then shipped out. So we’re getting the entire ecology devastated at one time. Two fours and the elephants. Yeah. And a lot of people don’t realize, I mean, just to put this in perspective, transnational crimes right now are worth about a little over two and a half trillion dollars a year. The wildlife trade is worth about $20 billion a year. I’ve reached probably 4 billion of that, but then there is illegal, unregulated, unreported fisheries that’s $30 billion a year. And then there’s the illegal timber trade, which is 50 to $150 billion a year. All the habitat these animals are coming from. We’re talking $200 billion right there for, for living organisms that are part of this trade. This is, this is not small potatoes here. And not only that, you get convergence. So this guy Feisal, when we started making these connections, it turned out the DEA had been working to catch these major heroin and meth, um, traffickers operating in Mombasa.
They’re monitoring their cell phones and all of a sudden they start bragging about moving ivory too. And it turns out that Pfizer was part of their network and they actually went and they used all these connections that we made because you can’t track the heroin and meth, but you can track the ivory because it’s a natural population. And we essentially laid out a whole map for them and they use that as part of their evidence to IX. X did I the Akasha brothers that were driving this to the United States, they’re now in the same prison as El Chapo, right down the hall. And in fact, the way we knew figured out that that judge that got Feisal, um, acquitted was likely corrupt because the Akasha brothers, when they did a plea deal when they were in the United States to try to reduce their sentence and they listed all the magistrates they paid off to prevent them from getting extradited.
And one of them I noticed was that magistrate that acquitted Feisal. So what do you think about this work? This is energizing. Keeps you going, but that’s a huge tidal wave that you’re trying to push back at. It’s, yeah, it’s very exciting, very stressful. And, um, you know, and you know, to be honest, the, the hardest thing is keeping it funded. And the reason that I say this is that, you know, imagine, I mean, if you look on this map, so I’ve got, um, ivory seizures from Uganda, from United Arab Emirates, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Malawi, Malaysia, Hong Kong. I may have said that. Togo, um, and then others from South Sudan, we’ve done over 65 large seizures. I’ve never asked a country to pay a dime for those analyses because if you ask them, they won’t give it to you. So we have to raise the money to pay for these seizures before they happen, so that when a seizure is made, I can just go send it to me.
We’ll do it for free. Who, who are you raising money from? The other other international agencies that funded. So we’ve gotten money from a variety of sources over the years. Um, the us department of state has funded us. Um, we get, uh, we have gotten a lot of money from Paul Allen foundation in the past. Um, we have private donors here. Um, um, the Moritz family foundation has been a huge supporter of our work. Um, UN office on drugs and crime has supported us world bank, the global environment fund UMDP but you know, they’re all kind of, you know, a little bit here, a little bit there, sometimes a big bit here, but it’s, it’s always one year at a time. And so we are constantly trying to, to make sure that, that we have the money to do this work and the more successful we get, the more seizures we have.
So right now, just, just like, you know, as of today, I have 12 seizures in the next year that I’m going to go get, you know, next month I’m going to Vietnam and Singapore and Thailand and, and then we’ve got them in Mozambique and Kenya and, and so that’s, you know, these are materials that have already been seized. Now you’re going to do the forensics on it, we’re going to go get the samples and then do the analysis. And it’s each one of those is $25,000. So times 12, all of a sudden it’s a lot of money. Or you mentioned that these are financial crimes, department of Homeland security, the federal government puts some money into it. I mean, is the federal government helping to fund these? Absolutely. They help. But you know, things are complicated right now to say the least. And so, so for example, you know, nobody’s getting their budgets right now because they’re a little distracted.
Um, and, and even so the way these kinds of things work, they, you know, if you’re working with law enforcement agencies, they, they’re not, they don’t give you a bunch of money to do it. They’ve got a case, so they pay for that seizure. So the timing has to work right. So it’s not so good for us to have the money ahead of time when we get money from the us department of state. So, so the, um, it’s called INL, the Bureau of international narcotics and law enforcement affairs. They were a really important funder for us, you know, gave us assurances that we could have, you know, that, that we could do these shipments, um, as they came in. And, um, the Allen foundation similar, but there’s no guarantee funding will continue. And, and so, uh, you know, we’re always looking for who are your allies in Congress?
Who are, are your allies in the Trump administration that they’re trying to get some of this work done? You know, actually, we, we, we have allies that both sides of the Isles. Last year I got the Albert Schweitzer award presented by Maria Cantwell and, um, uh, Pramila J appall also gave me an award at that ceremony. Uh, Senator Chris Coons was there. Um, he’s been supportive, believe it or not. Uh, Don young from a representative from Alaska has been a major supporter of our work. Um, and norm Dixon when he was in office, um, uh, Susan Dell, Ben a, lots of them
still flabbergasted by the notion that, that the poaching is being done by people who want to see these animals disappear because then their ivory will be like gold. That’s sort of mind boggling and horrific. Does that also mean that they’re more than happy to see seized elephant tusks burned because it just gives the, what they have stockpiled higher value?
Um, I don’t know about the last part, but you know, I, I don’t think that they like seeing this ivory burn. They would much rather own it. And, and, and one of the things that also we are able to do is to see how often is ivory actual smuggled out of government stock PBIS. Cause that’s a whole other can of worms here. You know, when, when, um, you know, there’s all this debate, should we have legalized ivory sales too? Is that a way to save the elephants or should we ban all ivory sales in there? You know, that debate in itself has done more damage to our ability to police the IB trade than any other thing I can think of because it’s so polarized nations and, and you know, nongovernment organizations, you know, and, and, and, um, you know, there, there are two logical arguments, although I would say they’re, one is more logical than the other, but, but, but basically the argument being that the best way to save elephants is to flood the market with ivory and the price will go down and it’ll create less incentive for these guys to poach.
Well, that doesn’t make a lot of sense simply because when you start to get wind that that’s going to happen, that these guys are going to go out and they’re going to grab every last test they can and try to move it as fast as they can. So it’s gonna create a massacre. Um, and also we know that, you know, there’ve been all these statistical models showing you can’t, it can’t provide the demand. It can’t meet the demand that is there. So the better way is to have a complete ban across the board. But then you, it gets complicated. I mean, imagine a place like Botswana, so they’ve got 130,000 elephants and their previous president was very, very conservation oriented. They had a no kill policy. So, so you, you couldn’t, uh, for, for wildlife, you couldn’t, you know, no hunting in Botswana despite the biggest population.
Then in Africa, um, shoot to kill policy for poachers. And then they got a new president who completely shifted that all of a sudden wanted to open up the, the, the country to hunting. He was talking about using the carcass meat to make dog food and, and you would think, Oh, well this is a bad guy. Well, he’s not a bad guy. W what happened is he’s under so much pressure for human wildlife conflict that, you know, he thought, Oh, well this is another way. And, and you know, and then the, the former president, the current president, we’re really in strife about this. And that just kinda made everybody dig in more and get more polarized. And you know, now starting to kind of come together a little bit more and, and, and realizing the magnitude of the problem. But you know, these kinds of things, I mean, this happens all of the world. It’s the Democrats and the Republicans, you know, I mean, look at how stupid things are right now and, and how unbelievable Dugin people are and, and, and the things that they’re saying, you think they can’t possibly believe that, but it’s happening. And these are our senators and we’re talking about here,
these arguments just take our eye off the goal, which is to save these last wild creatures. I see, I see. Again, it seems like you have to be willful to be hopeful because there’s just so much, so many pressures, real human pressures.
You bet. And, and so you could ask the same thing about the drug trade. I mean, how long have you been policing that and here to look, we see these pharmaceutical companies that are now the major criminals. I mean, it’s crazy. It’s crazy. But we have to keep going because of the damage that this is causing. The what, what gives me the most hope about, about, you know, looking at the, um, the animal component of this illegal transnational crimes is that it’s for the first time we have something that is highly traceable and that it had, because of convergence with other crimes, it’s something that is a tool that can support other types of criminal investigations make raise the priority for this, give us more, um, support to, to address this problem. You know, these tools that I’ve been describing, these are all brand spanking new and we’re making big progress.
So yeah, we don’t solve this problem overnight, but I’m confident we’re going to nail it. Yeah, I am confident we’re going to nail it. And you know, we may not wipe the whole thing out, but we are going to get some really big guys. I mean these [inaudible], you know, these poachers could not be operating for so long if they did not have a buyer, especially the buyer. They’re not that well protected. I mean, these, they, they’re, they’re, they’re like, they could, these big traffickers could care less. They care about as much for the poachers, they care about an elephant. The fact that you can go and to the same area and poach it over and over again for over a decade is only gonna happen if you’ve got a reliable, consistent buyer. And that’s what we have here. Right?
So not a reliable and consistent market. Not somebody in China who wants to buy a small carved ivory pendant or in Alaska or in America. People say, well, we have to stop the, we have to stop the desire for the product and that’ll stop the market. No,
yes and no. You have to have the manned or, or it doesn’t work. Um, you know, but so, so first of all, there is no question you have to do both. You have to stop the man or you will be doing this forever. You can’t solve the problem immediate, the urgent problem by dealing with demand because it’s too slow. It’s just too slow. And so you really got to have law enforcement. And the problem is, is that some people get focused on all the, the demand side and they lose sight of the other side. And, and, you know, we’re trying to bring that back and say, no, no, we need to turn this around. You need to do both. It was a huge deal when the ivory ban happened in 1989 the international ivory band by Saudis. Um, it was a huge deal when president Obama banned ivory sales in the United States along with the president of China.
But, but it’s not so simple because, you know, why then did Washington state have to do their own ivory band? Well, the reason this is that you’ve got an international band says you can’t move across, um, international borders. It’s illegal, but once it’s in the country, you can sell it. So, so then Obama did the ban against the United States to prevent it from coming into the United States. It made it illegal. But then once it’s in a state, if a state has illegal ivory, you can still sell it. So each state has to do their own law. Just to put it in perspective, it’s kind of ridiculous. And then it’s fueled by this polarization. Oh, what’s the best strategy? And so, so there’s not movement because you, you know, the city’s meeting, which is supposed to make these big decisions on what happens to this, to the wildlife trade and you know, is should we sell ivory or not and, and how are we going to attack this problem? And they spend, you know, it’s every three years is the major cities meeting and it’s two weeks long. And usually a week of it is just talking about ivory and what are we gonna do? And it’s all back and forth debating and nothing happens and nothing gets done. This is crazy.
Well, or it, it fits perfectly into the plans of those people who want to keep the trade operating. I mean, that’s the argument for why Russia does what it does in terms of politics. Chaos is helpful to those people who exploit chaos.
So you just kind of figured out ways around and, and you know, hopefully we’re, we’re onto something that’s gonna work. Um,
there must be people who say to you, this is all important in the short term, we got to do this, but climate change is going to change everything so much that, uh, we should be concentrating there, but let’s not do that debate. Cause that’s back to what you’re just talking about. But when you’re sitting, you
know, see the thing, you know, what about AIDS? What about all the things that we care about? People not climate, I don’t care. You know, I mean, the, the, the bittersweet part is there’s so many people in the world and that’s part of the problem. But there’s also so much diversity that there’s someone who, who will pick a mission of importance and follow it. And we got to let all of them chase their dreams so that, that, you know, we can address all of these problems concurrently, you know, to climate change is, is, you know, talk about something that’s slow to fix. You know, I mean, even, you know, a, you know, it’s just, it’s enough to get people to believe that there’s really a problem. But then the fixes and all the things that people have to give up to make that fix in their willingness, you know, it’s crazy.
Yeah. Coming back from Costa Rica was funny. I, you know, made me think of, think of the similar thing. So you know, we landed and they said, you know, there’s four people on the flight that to get go to Alaska, they’re going to miss their flight. Can you all please sit still so they can walk off? And they went back to playing. They stood up and then within like 30 seconds, the whole front of the plane stood up and started. They couldn’t get off. And I was like, Oh my God, you know, you can’t even make that sacrifice. And you know, no wonder we can’t solve climate change is anyways,
I know you’re going to tell me there’s room for everything and we need all these solutions. But I mean, you go to some of these foundations and some of these groups and they say, yeah, we’re going to contribute, but glad that you could trace their money back to some pretty interesting sources. I mean we are, it’s so convoluted. It’s so complex.
Yeah. I mean it is, but, but, but what are you going to do? Are we gonna stop fighting cancer because of climate change and we can stop fighting AIDS because of cancer? Or are we going to stop you? You know, I, uh, stop animal cruelty or racism or, you know, I mean, you know, there, there’s just, there’s just so many different things, but you know, the people thank God or, or whoever are, are working to, you know, th th th th they’re taking on each of those missions and they’re doing their their best. And that’s all we can do. I mean, the real thing we need to do is stop having so many damn babies and just, you know, re, you know, deal with our population size and how many resources we are each taking ourselves and shut off your lights and turn the water off when you brush your teeth and you know, and quit buying so much plastic.
And you know, these are all individual things that people can do. And, but yet, you know, you’re dealing with the problem of, Oh well let’s just me, I’m just one of the billions of people how I can stand up. It’ll be okay if I stand up in the airplane. Yeah, yeah. It’s just, and you know, that’s the problem. That’s like, you know, when I see that, that’s just what I think about it. It’s like, Oh my God, you can’t even let these people off the plane. How are we going to fix these big problems? And it’s because you need people with passion that, that really, you know, are willing to do what it takes.
You’ve been doing this a long time, I guess you’re going to keep doing it for a long time, but are there people that you’ve trained or people in other labs that are younger people that are picking up the mantle of these tools and this work
I’m working on that I’m training graduate students to do this work is quite stressful for them.
Talking about emotional stress, right? You’re talking about that this is painful work.
Yeah, hugely, hugely. Just, Hey, I’ll give you an example. I go in, I do a seizure. Um, I just did one in Singapore, that 1800 tests, 60% of the tusks were about as thick as my thumb. So young creatures, and I’m looking at that going, Oh my God, you know, they’re, they’re just, you know, these guys, there’s barely enough IB here for anything of value. Um, so that’s, there’s, that’s one element. Then you see, you know, you get this guy convicted and he gets off because of, you know, all these different, you know, irregularities that were, you know, things, evidence stolen and just, and then you get, you know, lots of good people working carpet, but it just takes, you know, a couple of people in the right place to pay off and you’ve lost everything. You know, the, the one thing I will say is that, um, I love working at this university because this university is so supportive of this work at all the way up to the president of the university. And I feel like I’m in a place where, where I can do what I need to do and I can escape from all the bullshit. And not only that, when I need a collaborator to help me with something, they’re are here cause this is a big, incredible university and it works. And so, so I think, you know, would I, you know, should I be in an NGO? Should I be income? This is, this is the place to do this work.
All right. Okay. So then in the end, still you get the pleasure and the passion from seeing these living creatures.
Yeah, I mean, I, I, I’ve been, I started working in Africa when I was 19 so I, you know, been going back there ever since. And I, I love it. I love animals, I love wildlife and I love figuring out how they came to be the way they are. So yeah. And it’s just really fun to be able to turn that on their head on its head and use that to solve these crimes that are killing them.
Well, that’s, that’s a cool thing. All right, sir. Thank you for taking the time. Dr Samuel Wasser is the director of the center for conservation biology and holds the endowed chair in conservation biology at the university of Washington. He and wildlife photographer art Wolf will discuss the fate of wild elephants and what we can all do to help preserve them in the wild on Wednesday, January 29th at 7:30 PM there are still some tickets available if you’d like to join in the conversation and we’ll also be filming the event so you can watch it on our town hall Seattle YouTube channel. Thank you for listening to episode 51 of in the moment. Our theme music comes from the Seattle based band, EBU and Seattle’s own bar Souk records. You can listen to the majority of the programs that happen on our town hall stages on our arts and culture, civics and science series, podcasts. Just search town hall, Seattle, wherever you listen to your podcasts and subscribe to support town hall, become a member or see our calendar of events. Check out our website at town hall, seattle.org next week on in the moment, our correspondent Elizabeth Ralston is talking with Bob Redmond and and the clay about the importance of our microbiome. Till then, thanks for joining us right here in the moment. [inaudible].