Cristián Samper (born September 25, 1965) is a Colombian-American tropical biologist and an international authority on conservation biology and environmental policy. Since 2012, he has served as President and CEO of WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society). He was acting secretary of the Smithsonian from 2007 to 2008, the first Latin American to hold the position. From 2003 to 2012, he was the Director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, the world's largest natural history collection. In April 2015, Dr. Samper was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Early life and education
Samper was born on September 25, 1965 in San José, Costa Rica, the youngest child of Armando Samper Gnecco, an Agronomist and Economist from Colombia, and Jean Kutschbach, an American from New York State. He was raised in Colombia, the country of his father, Armando Samper, from one year of age. His other siblings were Marta, Belén, and Mario.
Samper graduated in 1987 from the University of the Andes in Bogotá, Colombia, with a B.Sc. in Biology. He then moved to the United States to attend Harvard University, where he graduated in 1989 with a M.Sc., and received his Ph.D. in Biology in 1992 with his dissertation Natural disturbance and plant establishment in an Andean cloud forest.
Back in Colombia, Samper collaborated in the creation of the Colombian Ministry of Environment in 1993 and was successful in conceiving the Alexander von Humboldt Biological Resources Research Institute, a public funded research institute of which he became its first Director from 1995 to 2001. In 1999 he was appointed Chairman of the Subsidiary Body of Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, a post he held until 2001. He was Deputy Director and staff scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama.
In 2003, Samper became the Director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.. During his tenure at the Smithsonian, he raised more than $300 million in private philanthropy. While leading the National Museum of Natural History, Samper shepherded many new programs, improved business practices, and completed facility and exhibit additions and upgrades. In 2008, the museum launched the Encyclopedia of Life, a web-based global partnership to provide on-line access to knowledge about life on Earth. In addition, Samper developed the Recovering Voices initiative, aimed at working with indigenous communities to document, preserve and revive endangered languages and cultural traditions. Some of the important a renovations under Samper's leadership included the Behring Family Hall of Mammals (2003); the Butterfly Pavilion (2007); the Sant Ocean Hall (2008); the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins (2010); and the Q?rius Education Center (2013).
Other important improvements, led by Samper were the upgrading of collections storage facilities, including a $100 million expansion and renovation of the Museum Support Center, a state of the art collections facility; and expansion of digitization of collections. A major interest of Samper has been efforts to mentor and guide the development of future leaders and scientists. While at the museum he developed a succession plan for research scientists, including a major recruitment of the next generation of scientists across the Museum; and established the Buck Fellowship Program to train the next generation of scientists.
In 2006, he made some controversial changes to an exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, "Seasons of Life and Land". Following the resignation of Secretary Lawrence M. Small in the wake of inquiries into personal expenditures, the Board of Regents appointed Samper as the Smithsonian's Acting Secretary in 2007 and 2008. He returned to the museum in July 2008 upon the appointment of current Secretary G. Wayne Clough. In July 2012, he stepped down from the directorship of the museum to assume the position of president and CEO of WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).
At WCS, Samper oversees the world's largest collection of urban parks—including the Bronx Zoo, New York Aquarium, Central Park Zoo, Queens Zoo, and Prospect Park Zoo—and a global conservation program in nearly 60 nations and in all the world's oceans. WCS is forging partnerships with NGOs, foundations, governments, botanical gardens, and zoos and aquariums in the United States and across the world to address a range of conservation issues, including ending elephant poaching and all illegal wildlife trade.
In his tenure leading WCS, Samper has helped the organization to pursue its conservation mission on many fronts—both at its New York City parks and in its field work across the globe. In his first year, Samper developed a seven-year strategy, WCS:2020, which is ensuring the organization's global impact well into its second century. In addition, WCS is undergoing an unprecedented transformation and rebuilding of the New York Aquarium following its destruction by Hurricane Sandy. In 2013, WCS took the lead in bringing together African elephant range states, fellow conservation NGOs, government leaders, and the Clinton Global Initiative for a multi-year commitment to stop the killing, stop the trafficking, and stop the demand for elephant ivory. Samper was named to President Obama's Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking the same year. A major undertaking by WCS has been creating and leading the 96 Elephants Campaign, which has helped spark actions in the U.S. and around the globe to save elephants—including state ivory bans in New York, New Jersey, California, and Washington.
Samper is a leading champion of the role of zoological parks in educating the public and inspiring them to protect wildlife and wild places. With 700 million visitors worldwide, Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) institutions are in a unique position to connect people to field conservation around the globe. Addressing the Association of Zoos and Aquariums at its annual meeting in September 2014, Samper noted: "All the zoos and aquariums -- the AZA members – have more than almost 3,000 conservation projects that are happening right now as we speak. And they take place in a hundred and twenty-seven countries and every one of them is starting to make a difference. Together, we as a community are investing $160,000,000 a year in field conservation. That is larger than the budget of most of the other conservation groups in this country and makes AZA one of the largest investors in field conservation."
In September, 2014, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos presented Samper with the prestigious Order of San Carlos. An international authority on conservation biology and environmental policy, Dr. Samper was recognized as a Colombian citizen for outstanding contributions to his field. In April 2015, Dr. Samper was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Samper is currently chair of the board of directors of Bioversity International; sits on the board of the Carnegie Institution for Science; and is a member of the Harvard University Board of Overseers, the Executive Committee for the Encyclopedia of Life, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), and the White House Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking. Samper previously served on the boards of World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel (STAP) of the Global Environment Facility (GEF), and the IUCN Species Survival Commission.
In 2002 he married Adriana Casas Isaza, an environmental lawyer from Colombia with whom he has two children, Carolina (b. 2006), and Martín (b. 2009).