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Remembering Conservationist Mingma Norbu Sherpa
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Remembering Conservationist Mingma Norbu Sherpa

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Remembering Conservationist Mingma Norbu Sherpa
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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up string theory untangled.

But first, environmentalists and dignitaries from around the world gathered in Nepal this week to mourn the loss of 24 people killed in a recent helicopter crash. Among the dead were many of Nepal's most important conservationists, and one of them was Mingma Sherpa of the World Wildlife Fund, a child of the Himalayas whose work helped changed the way conservation is practiced around the world.

NPR's John Nielsen has this remembrance.

JOHN NIELSEN: A week ago today, a celebration took place in an isolated mountain village in Nepal, a place called Gunza(ph), roughly 200 miles east of Kathmandu. Government officials, village leaders and conservationists took turns praising a plan to save the forests near Gunza from loggers and poachers. Pictures of this ceremony show the amazing beauty of the forests around the town and the staggering size of the icy mountains nearby. This is the kind of scene that makes Nepal so unforgettable.

Mingma Sherpa recently told NPR...

Mr. MINGMA SHERPA (World Wildlife Fund): You can sit on the back of an elephant in Chitwan National Park and see 28,000 foot peaks up in the high mountains in one angle. That's, I think, pretty amazing.

NIELSEN: Mingma Sherpa attended the Gunza celebration as a representative of the World Wildlife Fund, a nonprofit group that funds conservation programs all over the world. But he also went there are a local mountain boy who'd become the face of conservation in Nepal. Judy Mills, a tiger expert who worked with Mingma for years, says he was especially popular in Nepal's mountain towns and farm fields.

Ms. JUDY MILLS (Tiger Expert): Mingma Sherpa was a rock star. When he went home to visit, people lined the streets or the trails. As he approached, they lined up to meet him, to greet him, to put prayer flags around his neck.

NIELSEN: Mingma, who was raised in a village on the side of Mount Everest, was always embarrassed by these tributes. But by most accounts he earned them. While serving as the first warden of Mount Everest National Park in the 1970's, he settled bitter fights with locals who resented the park. They said it provided few benefits to them. Mingma started new programs that gave the locals a share of tourism revenues. In return, the locals helped protect the park from loggers and poachers. In the years that followed, projects that involved local people and conservation became Mingma's hallmark. He called it conservation with a human face.

Carter Roberts, chairman of the World Wildlife Fund, is in Nepal attending services for Mingma and six other World Wildlife staffers killed in the crash. He says Mingma was quiet but forceful.

Mr. CARTER ROBERTS (Chairman, World Wildlife Fund): And there was always a moment when everyone was talking and suddenly the room would grow silent and everybody would look at Mingma to learn what he thought. And inevitably the few words he spoke always carried a lot more weight than other people's.

NIELSEN: In the 1990's, Mingma Sherpa talked the World Wildlife Fund and the government of Nepal into launching what remains one of the more ambitious restoration programs in the world. It's known as the Terai Arc. And it aims to reconnect scattered forest fragments in Nepal's southern lowlands where rhinos, tigers and elephants fight for space with nearly 30 million people. Carter Roberts says Mingma's emphasis on local involvement is the reason the Terai Arc project has survived a Maoist insurgency and a host of other problems. It's also why the program has become a model being copied all over the world.

Mr. ROBERTS: And you cannot overestimate the impact that Mingma had, not just in Nepal but in Latin America, in Africa, throughout Asia, and in the boardrooms of every conservation group. This is the future of conservation, and it all started right here.

NIELSEN: The celebration in Gunza was supposed to be another milestone for Mingma. It put villagers in charge of conserving their forests. After the ceremony, Mingma Sherpa and his colleagues climbed into a Russian helicopter for what was supposed to be a 20-minute tour of these forests. Moments later, the villagers heard an explosion. Two days after that, rescue teams found what was left of the helicopter at the bottom of a cliff. There were no survivors. Mingma Norbu Sherpa was 50 years old.

John Nielsen, NPR News, Washington.

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