Cristián Samper, director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, is shifting gears in August to become the president and CEO of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). The $200 million conservation organization runs the Bronx Zoo, other New York City zoos, and wildlife programs in 65 countries. "After 10 years, it feels like a good time to leave. I am ready for the next challenge," he says.
When Samper, a tropical biologist, took over the museum in 2003, morale was low. It had gone through several directors in quick succession, and the Smithsonian was in turmoil, with a controversial secretary at the helm. Samper guided the museum through renovations of two-thirds of its exhibits, including the ocean, mammal, and human origins halls, as well as the building of the Butterfly Pavilion. He also helped to bring in fresh talent; under his watch 25 new curators came on board and the museum started an endowed fellowship program. During that time, the Smithsonian funneled about $100 million into the expansion and renovation of museum collection space. Samper also helped put a focus on the web, promoting the digitization of the collections and co-founding the Encyclopedia of Life, a Web-based database of the world's plants and animals.
In 2007, he took over temporarily for Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small, who resigned amidst scandal. Samper returned as director of the natural history museum after Wayne Clough was hired as secretary 15 months later. Samper leaves the museum with a "major legacy," says Clough.
But Samper says his heart is in conservation. He grew up in Colombia and his first jobs were doing field surveys in Andean cloud forests. In Colombia, he was instrumental in setting up private nature reserves and environmental education programs. He helped to formulate global biodiversity strategies as part of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity. "In some ways, I am going back to my roots," he says.
John Kress, a botanist at the natural history museum, has known Samper since Samper was a graduate student. "It's been a great pleasure watching him take the museum forward," says Kress. "When he had a museum to run, that was a big distraction from his real love of conservation. Things are really good right now, and that's a good time to leave and do something different."
Samper will replace the Steven Sanderson, who is retiring in July from WCS after 10 years as its head. "It's a great gain for WCS," says Jonathan Coddington, the museum's associate director for research and collections.