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Last Updated: Monday, 25 September 2006, 18:22 GMT 19:22 UK
A conservation catastrophe for Nepal
By Charles Haviland
BBC News, Kathmandu

Chandra Gurung
Chandra Gurung was a pioneer in sustainable development (Pics: WWF)
The death of all 24 people on board a WWF helicopter which crashed in eastern Nepal is a human tragedy and also a catastrophe for Nepal, which has lost a starry line-up of internationally renowned conservationists.

In the words of Gabriel Campbell, an American conservationist based here: "It would be almost impossible to assemble a more remarkable group of conservationists and Himalayan scholars - pioneers in helping local people understand and conserve their natural resources."

Nepali botanist Tirtha Shrestha agrees, saying these were individuals for whom conservation was "the people's agenda".

They were, he says, "sons of the mountains - they knew them, travelled them, lived for them".

Harka Gurung, geographer and author of 74 books, was revered as one of the world's foremost experts on the Himalayas.

"Every time he opened his mouth, you learned something new," says Mr Campbell. "He was also a hell of a lot of fun - irrepressible, unpredictable - he could enthral and embarrass an audience."

Like many others on this flight, he belonged to one of the ethnic groups known as janajatis - Nepal's indigenous peoples.

He was the first of them to be a government minister, and had iconic status among janajatis But generally people of these ethnic groups have been excluded from political power and influence.

'More than just trees'

Another of the deceased, scientist Tirtha Maskey, was one of the world's leading experts on crocodiles and rhinoceroses, and had also discovered a completely new species of frog, which was named after him. Recently retired, he was working as an adviser to WWF.

Tirtha Maskey
Tirtha Maskey was a leading expert on crocodiles and rhinos
Mingma Sherpa, aged 51, had been working latterly in WWF's American branch. But he was the first person from his famous ethnic group, another janajati people, to be warden of the national park which contains Everest.

He was also closely involved with the conservation area around Annapurna in central Nepal.

So was Chandra Gurung, the local head of WWF, a vivacious man who was a pioneer in sustainable development involving local people.

"Mingma mobilised global resources and world opinion to help Nepal," says Mr Shrestha. "Chandra implemented them in the field."

Mr Campbell says Mingma Sherpa was softly-spoken, with an ability to connect with people of all nationalities. He describes Chandra Gurung as a towering figure.

The list goes on.

Narayan Poudel, who had recently been made head of the wildlife and national parks department, was committed to implementing conservation without army involvement.

He had headed another major national park, Makalu, home to the world's fifth-highest peak. Mr Campbell recalls that he consistently managed to cover great distances even more quickly than local Sherpa and other people in the remotest parts of Nepal.

Damodar Parajuli, acting secretary in the ministry of forests, was always innovative in the sphere of forestry, says Shrestha. "He truly understood that forests were much more than just trees and timber."

Landmark event

Among the seven foreigners who died on board the helicopter was the Finnish charge d'affaires, Pauli Mustonen, who is described by someone who worked closely with him as having been "incredibly vivacious" and highly committed to Nepal's peace process.

Harka Gurung
Harka Gurung was an expert on the Himalayas
Just three weeks ago, he promoted a conference on conservation and conflict in Kathmandu.

The 20 people who died alongside the four-man crew were returning from a landmark conservation event, in which the government handed to the local community control of the protected area surrounding Kangchenjunga, the world's third-highest mountain.

This is a region of huge biodiversity and a habitat for rare plant and animal species including the snow leopard and hemlock forests.

The others on board were Gopal Rai, state Minister for Forests; his wife, Mina Rai; nine other Nepalis including two television journalists and two helicopter crew; two Americans, officers of WWF-US and USAid; two women working for WWF's British branch - one of them Australian and the other Canadian; and two Russian crew members.

Many people are saying that Nepal, whose most recent years have been turbulent, has lost some of its most committed servants - people it simply could not afford to lose.

"We have lost very many good people," says Mr Shrestha. "We must hope their efforts will encourage Nepal to produce more people like them."

How the crash site was discovered

No survivors in Nepal air crash
25 Sep 06 |  South Asia
Nepal hunt for helicopter goes on
25 Sep 06 |  South Asia
Country profile: Nepal
15 Sep 06 |  Country profiles

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