Alaska moose expert heads to Saudi Arabia

Hundertmark will work with Zoological Society of London rebuilding native animal populations

Posted: Friday, December 27, 2002

In his years with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Soldotna's Kris Hundertmark has seen a lot of interesting animals. He even once wrote a paper about a "unicorn" moose that had but one antler growing straight from the top of its head.

But after 20 years with the state of Alaska, Hundertmark has finally decided he's ready to make a move. A big move.

Hundertmark recently accepted a job working with endangered species in Saudi Arabia. His last day with Fish and Game will be Tuesday. After that, he's got four days to enjoy his retirement before he packs up and heads to London for a week-long orientation. After that, it's off to the Middle East.

He's moving half-way around the world in order to help rebuild native animal populations decimated by hunting -- animals such as the Arabian leopard, Nubian ibex and Arabian oryx. It's a far cry from Alaska's moose and bear, but for Hundertmark, the new job is the chance of a lifetime.

"I'm really looking forward to it," Hundertmark said recently from his office in the Fish and Game building on Kalifornsky Beach Road. "It's going to be a wonderful experience."

Hundertmark will be working with the Zoological Society of London for the Saudi government. He said his job will be to study the genetics of the various endangered species in order to maximize the number in the wild. The program is important, because some species -- such as the Arabian oryx -- have already disappeared in the wild.

"The only reason (the oryx) didn't go extinct in captivity was sheiks had private collections," Hundertmark said.

With small populations of animals, it's very important to make sure the animals remain genetically pure.

That's where Hundertmark, who has a doctorate degree in biology, comes in. He'll be responsible for monitoring genetic diversity within populations, as well as determining population numbers using statistical analysis.

"One of the things we'll be trying to do is develop a technique to go into the wild and pick up either shed hair or feces and extract DNA from that from the animal that left it," he said. "Then we can use statistics to find out what's out there."

Aside from determining population numbers, Hundertmark also will use genetics to make sure populations do not interbreed.

"You don't want hybrids out there," he said.

Hundertmark said his experience in Alaska will definitely help him in his new assignment. He's spent much of his time with the state at the Moose Research Center near Swanson River, which has offered a unique opportunity to study small, captive populations of animals. Working with moose should help a lot when it comes time to study the oryx -- a kind of antelope with extremely long, slender horns.

"Working at the moose pens I got a lot of experience working with captive ungulates," he said.

Hundertmark said the job part of his new assignment couldn't be more perfect. The moving to Saudi Arabia aspect, well, that's a little different.

Married with two children, Hundertmark said it will be hard for him to pack up and leave Soldotna -- especially since his family is staying behind. As the job calls for a one-year contract, Hundertmark plans on taking a wait-and-see approach. That means he'll be going solo -- a prospect he isn't entirely looking forward to.

"Saudi Arabia is not a place I'd have chosen to go live in a million years, but I'll see how it goes," he said. "We'll definitely be looking at some international calling cards."

He said he's a little apprehensive about moving to the Middle East, but he's heard good things from other people working in Saudi Arabia.

"I've talked to people over the Internet," he said. "It's actually a very safe place to live."

And besides, what's a little danger when you've got a chance to meet an Arabian leopard face to face?

"To get into a program like this, with the Zoological Society of London, is just a great opportunity," Hundertmark said. "It couldn't have worked out better."

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