U. of U. prof named National Geographic 'Risk Taker'
National Geographic • Ecologist to be featured in May issue, one of nine thrill-seekers chosen.
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He's been charged by an elephant in Tanzania, chased by a machete-wielding mob in Costa Rica and carjacked in Ethiopia, but University of Utah assistant professor Cagan Sekercioglu insists he's not looking for trouble.

"I'm a risk-averse person. I do not actively search out risk," he said. "I want to see birds in as many places as possible. ... It just comes with the territory."

The conservation ecologist's Indiana Jones-like life has earned him a rare distinction: He's one of nine risk-takers to be featured in National Geographic, appearing in the May issue.

A native of Turkey educated at Harvard and Stanford universities, Sekercioglu has been at the U. since 2010. He's spent a large portion of his career in the field working all over the world but said one of his most dangerous assignments occurred in the remote Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska. He was studying the effect of the spruce beetle on forest birds and "the park was packed with grizzlies."

A member of the research team was mauled the week he arrived, after which the rest of the scientists were armed and on high alert. Sekercioglu had a handful of encounters with bears during the project, including one in which the animal looked to be coming right at him. Sekercioglu turned and reached for his gun. Another researcher shouted.

"I turn and I see the bear, but he's running away. He apparently did not realize we were there," he said. "I guess he was just a happy bear running through the forest."

Sekercioglu's risks, though, aren't just physical. He documents rapidly disappearing species and speaks out about conservation, including in his native Turkey. He's now working to prevent a proposed dam that would dry up the Aras River wetlands, home to 240 bird species.

Though his activism could hurt his relationship with the Turkish government — and his ability to do research there — he says some risks are worth taking.

"We simply cannot stand by as the government destroys it," he said. "If I don't take this risk, I cannot tell people to take it."

lwhitehurst@sltrib.com

Twitter: @lwhitehurst