Mingma Norbu Sherpa; Pioneer In Conservation in the Himalayas

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 29, 2006

Mingma Norbu Sherpa, 50, who grew up in the Himalayas near Mount Everest and became a leading voice for conservation in Nepal and Bhutan as an official with the World Wildlife Fund, died Sept. 23 in a helicopter crash in Nepal.

The accident occurred near Kangchenjunga, the third-highest mountain in the world, about 200 miles east of Nepal's capital, Kathmandu. All 24 people onboard were killed, including seven international officials of the World Wildlife Fund and several of Nepal's environmental leaders. Two Americans were among the dead: Matthew Preece, 31, a WWF program officer from Washington, and Margaret Alexander, 57, an official with the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Mr. Sherpa, who lived in Falls Church and worked in the WWF's Washington office, spent about two-thirds of his time in Nepal and Bhutan as director of the environmental organization's Eastern Himalayas program and was credited with spreading sound conservation practices throughout the region.

Known simply as "Mingma" because his last name is so common among the people of the Himalayas, Mr. Sherpa was a protege of Sir Edmund Hillary's, who in 1953 became the first Westerner to scale Mount Everest. After his mountaineering exploits, Hillary established dozens of schools in the remote villages around Everest. Mr. Sherpa was in the first class of the first school, then furthered his education in Kathmandu and New Zealand, virtually becoming Hillary's adopted son.

Enacting Hillary's ideals, Mr. Sherpa spent 25 years managing national parks, founding conservation areas and educating Himalayan residents about the environment. He was also largely responsible for saving the single-horned Indian rhinoceros from extinction.

"We lost one of our heroes," Carter S. Roberts, president and chief executive of the WWF in the United States, said by telephone from Kathmandu. "There's no question Mingma was a real visionary. I've spoken with scores of people who have traveled with Mingma and who saw conservation come alive through his work and through his actions."

Overcoming an initial distrust of his environmental vision for Nepal, Mr. Sherpa became a beloved figure in his homeland. He was often greeted in mountain villages by people placing garlands around his neck.

His career began in 1980, when he became a ranger at Nepal's Sagarmatha National Park, which contains Mount Everest. Finding quick success in introducing sound ecological practices to local residents, he became the park's chief warden within six months. He was the first Sherpa -- the general name for the indigenous people of the region as well as his surname -- to hold the position.

He later helped found the 1,000-square-mile Annapurna Conservation Area Project, which encompassed the staging ground for most Everest expeditions. The region's forests were being felled at an alarming rate, and many animals, including the majestic snow leopard, were endangered. Moreover, trash left behind by international climbing parties led to the unenviable nickname of "the world's highest garbage dump."

Despite skepticism from many in Nepal, Mr. Sherpa enforced policies to clean up the trash and devised plans to maintain the forests. He introduced conservation programs to schools and hired local people to work for the park and protect the forest from wanton cutting. By inviting religious leaders to bless the preservation efforts, Mr. Sherpa, and his projects, gained further respect from the villagers.

With an approach he called "conservation with a human face," he trained a cadre of Nepalese conservation officials and embarked on community development that made environmental awareness a central concern in Nepal for the first time. Eventually, he turned management of the Annapurna park over to the local community.

Mr. Sherpa joined the World Wildlife Fund in 1989 and came to Washington in 1998 to direct the group's programs in Nepal, Bhutan and the Terai Arc region on the border of Nepal and India. Among other projects, he led efforts to protect endangered wildlife, including the Bengal tiger and the greater one-horned rhinoceros. Once fewer than 200 in number, the rhino has recovered to a population of almost 2,500.

Mr. Sherpa was born Oct. 31, 1955, in the Nepalese village of Khunde, near Mount Everest. Because he spoke several local languages and English, he was working as a translator for visiting trekkers and conservationists in his teens. He became especially close to Hillary after his father, a high-altitude porter, died in a Japanese expedition on Everest in 1971.

The younger Mr. Sherpa graduated from what was then Lincoln College, a branch of New Zealand's University of Canterbury, in 1980. He received a master's degree in natural resources management in 1985 from the University of Manitoba. As a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Michigan in 1987, he created a plan for environmental education in Nepal.

"Saving nature need not take place at the expense of people," he said.

Survivors include his wife, Phurba Sona Sherpa, and two children, Dawa Phuti Sherpa and Tenzing Norbu Sherpa, of Falls Church.

Since 1998, Mr. Sherpa had been developing an 800-square-mile conservation area surrounding the 28,169-foot-tall Kangchenjunga, which was behind Everest and K2 in height. He directed environmental education for hundreds of local people and reduced poaching and deforestation in the area. At the time of the helicopter crash, Mr. Sherpa and other officials were leaving a ceremony that gave control of the park to local residents.

"Kangchenjunga was his great vision," said Roberts, the U.S. head of the WWF. "It was a model of hope for how people from around the world can come together for conservation."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company