Cristián Samper is the president and CEO of the Wildlife Conservation Society, a role he ascended to in 2012 after serving as Director of the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of Natural History. The Daily sat down with Samper, who is in town to speak in Silicon Valley, to discuss his start as a botanist, the steps Stanford students can take to lead ecologically conscious lives and (one of) his favorite species — the sword-billed hummingbird.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): Where did you grow up? Did your childhood in South America influence your passion for tropical environments?
Cristián Samper (CS): I grew up in Bogotá, Colombia, in the Andes, surrounded by tropical nature. So that’s one of the things that captivated me from the time that I was a small child. I used to take long hikes and see all these tropical creatures, and I was always wondering what they where, and that’s what inspired me to become a biologist.
Fortunately, I had parents that supported me and let me go [to] all sorts of crazy places across the country, as well as a few teachers that gave me opportunities to go out in the field and the rainforest. You either love it or you hate it, and I loved it.
TSD: Within your research on tropical environments and conservation, do you have a specific focus for instance, a type of ecosystem or animal?
CS: My training is actually in botany. I worked in plants, and I did my Ph.D. work in the Andean cloud forests, so that’s where it started. With any biologist, you focus on one organism or one place until you start developing interests in other areas, and over time you discover the whole ecosystem.
I started as a botanist and then worked on birds, and then bird-plant interactions, and from there I became an ecologist and then over time a conservation biologist.
TSD: Can you explain what you mean by conservation biology, and how did you find yourself interested in it?
CS: Well, this is a relatively new field. One of the things that captivated many of us to study conservation biology is that you find that many of the places that we study [and] the plants and animals that we cherish, that we admire and examine, are increasingly under threat. The number of places that I studied when I was a teenager or college student, where there’s been an increasing pressure on losing some of these forests, I think more and more of us at some point decide to do something about it.
The challenge is that when you make that transition to conservation biology, you discover that the process of biology and other disciplines are interconnected. For instance, economics and many other disciplines [are crucial to] understanding the social and environmental dynamics of what’s happening [in an ecosystem]. In some ways, this is still a field that’s evolving, and we’re increasingly combining biology with other fields everything from economics to engineering to really try to understand and preserve some of the things we care about.
TSD: In your opinion, what have been the most prominent causes of ecological change? Is it global warming?
CS: It depends on where you are. Clearly, global warming is one. Habitat transformation still is a big driver in many areas, particularly in the tropics. Everything from deforestation to infrastructural dams and rivers there are a lot of issues about transforming the natural habits to giving way to kinds of production.
Global warming is certainly having an impact. I’ve seen it first hand in the Andes. Colombia where I grew up has more than twenty glaciers in the tropical mountains with high elevation. Half of the glaciers that existed when I was a teenager have disappeared at this point. This impacts the creatures that live there, and increasingly it impacts the people affected by the water. So that’s a second big driver.
In particular places, invasive species are ruining fresh water systems. So it is a combination of all these drivers of change that are happening increasingly in many parts of the world. Some of them we can fix short-term and some of them will have global impacts that we can help with long-term projects, like climate change.
TSD: What are some of the problems we can fix in the short-term?
CS: We’re trying to tackle all of them to some extent. For habitat transformation, I think there are a couple of things we can do. One is identifying areas that are critical for conservation and trying to set some of them aside for conservation. In fact, we’ve passed a lot through Congress in the last 20 years setting aside places for conservation.
More and more we’re trying to look at the various aspects of cultural production systems…try to mitigate some of the impacts that they’re having. There are different ways to produce food. There’s no doubt that food production is going to be one of the big, big changes. We have to produce about 50 percent more food for our growing population, and for the climate that’s huge. The question is how we’re going to produce that.
Of course in the area of climate change there are a number of steps that need to be taken. A big one is avoiding deforestation, as deforestation contributes to big emissions of carbon. About 70 percent of global emissions of CO2 come from deforestation…There are a number of steps that need to be taken, everything from the choices you make every day and the work we do in the field and the decisions politicians make or don’t make. We need a better model for development.
TSD: How did your position as Director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History prepare you for your role as President and CEO of the Wildlife Conservation Society?
CS: I think the two elements that really prepared me…was first of all [that] these museums are a lot about the public side and how you use the museum. For many, these are windows into nature and the way you connect people in the urban environment with the changes that are happening out there.
Secondly, the fact [is] that scientists at museums have a wide variety of documents and you can use the resources at the museum to make better decisions and better choices. I want us to spend more time not only studying nature and talking about nature, but actually doing something about it in the field.
This is a big moment for me, as my current role allows me to combine all of my interests in one institution.
TSD: What does your new position entail, and what do you foresee as your agenda with the organization?
CS: The Wildlife Conservation Society is one of the oldest environmental organizations in the U.S. From the very beginning, it had a two-pronged focus, on the one hand building the Bronx Zoo in New York, and then on the other, doing field research and conservation initially focused on North American mammals. Over the years it has grown dramatically with field programs and conservation programs in more than 67 countries around the world. So I oversee the forests and aquariums of New York and the many global conservation programs. It’s a fun job, but it’s a team effort more than anything. I have great colleagues both in New York and around the world that are really committed to its mission.
TSD: How can students and members of the Stanford community lead ecologically conscious lives and contribute to more wide-scale conservation efforts?
CS: Everything from the daily choices that you make as a citizen including issues like what you eat and what you drink. For instance, how you deal with elements like fisheries, and making sure you’re looking at [eating fish from] sustainable fisheries, driving some of the markets of the goods of certified products with ways of producing things that are environmentally more friendly. I think that being aware of them and making smart choices about what we do, one person at a time…can really start changing the world.
At a place like Stanford, [the] environment touches every dimension of every profession and so I think the question is to ask what the Stanford community can do to help the environment. For instance, researchers can use engineering for developing ways of managing natural resources or reducing emissions. Sometimes people think that conservation is left up to the biologists, but we need every profession and every kind of skill set to have an impact.
TSD: This might seem like a silly question, but given that you are President of the Wildlife Conservation Society, do you have a favorite species?
CS: Asking me if I have a favorite animal is like asking if I have a favorite child! I’ll tell you, though, one of the animals that have always blown me away are hummingbirds. Having grown up in Colombia, which has more than 100 species of hummingbirds, they are extraordinary animals that, when you think about it, have developed a very particular lifestyle in co-evolution between many plants and has with incredible adaptations.
One of my favorite hummingbirds is the sword-billed hummingbird and it is found in the Andes in Colombia and Ecuador. [The short-billed hummingbird] is about three inches long with a three-inch bill, which is quite extraordinary.
This interview has been condensed and edited.