WASHINGTON (AP) — The head of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History announced his resignation Monday, saying he plans to become president and CEO of the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York.

Cristian Samper said he will continue to serve at the Smithsonian through July. On Aug. 1, he will begin work at the conservation group, which runs the world’s largest system of urban wildlife parks, including the Bronx Zoo, New York Aquarium and Central Park Zoo.

As a biologist, Samper will join the Wildlife Conservation Society in overseeing 500 conservation projects worldwide.

“As a tropical biologist, I recognize the urgent need to conserve the natural and cultural diversity of this planet,” Samper said in announcing his plans.

Samper has led the Smithsonian’s natural history museum since 2003, overseeing the world’s largest collection of natural history specimens and artifacts. He also served as acting secretary of the Smithsonian in 2007 and 2008, following the departure of the previous chief executive amid a finance and governance scandal. Samper oversaw governance reforms and a review of Smithsonian business operations.

He is credited with raising more than $150 million for the natural history museum and overseeing renovations of its major exhibits devoted to mammals, oceans and human origins. He also is co-founder of the Web-based Encyclopedia of Life as a global project to expand knowledge of life on Earth.

Previously he was staff scientist and deputy director of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama and led a national biodiversity research institute in Colombia, where he was raised.

At the Wildlife Conservation Society, Samper will succeed Steve Sanderson, who plans to retire after more than 10 years leading the organization.

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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