Dr. Xiao Qian-zhu of the Peoples Republic of China, who is the most important human being on earth so far as wildlife is concerned, was getting a VIP tour of Patuxent Wildlife Research Center.

They showed him rank on rank of bald eagles, the famous whooping cranes, hawks, owls, ducks, and cages where starlings (yes, starlings ) are bred for study.

They showed him the elaborate computer system that translates scattered bird-band returns into wonderfully sophisticated population profiles, and megabuck machines that can identify and analyze pollutants down to two or three parts per billion.

Through it all Xiao smiled, and nodded, and now and then asked a question. Once, when he thought no one was looking he shook his head. They were demonstrating a Mercedes to a man who needs a Jeep.

Any one of those fabulous computers and analyzers costs more than his annual budget although Xiao, as the only wildlife biologist among the approximately one billion citizens of China, has responsibility for more wild creatures than any other person in the world. He must deal with an area of 3.7 million square miles, larger than the United States including Alaska and Hawaii.

And he is starting virtually from scratch. The struggle to provide a decent life and a secure future for its vast population requires all of China's energy and resources; anything spent on wildlife must be taken away from people. That the young nation has made even a modest start so soon is a measure of the reverence for nature of one of the world's oldest civilizations.

The Peoples Republic already has set aside 72 wildlife reserves and has plans for 300, but has few knowledgeable people to develop and guard them. (In a land where food is scarce, poaching is a major problem.) Xiao, a cheerful but intense man, is spending a year in this country studying at the University of Idaho at Moscow. In an interview during his visit to Washington he was asked if he sometimes despairs over the magnitude of the task he and his countrymen have undertaken, considering that at 59 he is just two years short of the average life expectancy in China.

"It is a big job, yes," he said. "But it also is a big opportunity.It is not only for our own people that we must preserve the giant panda and the golden monkey and the red crane; these species, all species, belong to all humanity. We feel it is a duty to share our national heritage."

The several foreign scientific teams now at work on specific wildlife problems in China are the first wave of what Xiao ho es will become a flood of international assistance.

"Education has first priority," he said. "We have to train people to manage the reserves. But first we must train people to train those people." He signed. "There are thousands [26,000] of Chinese students enrolled in American universities, but not one of them is studying wildlife management."

That may begin to change as soon as this fall. The U.S. branch of the World Wildlife Fund and several other organizations are trying to develop scholarship programs for Xiao's top students.

Keith Hay, conservation director of the American Petroleum Institute, has launched a campaign to generate both corporate and private aid. Hay, a wildlife biologist, became aware of Chinese wildlife problems while touring that nation last summer. He hosted Xiao's Washington visit and is determined to do what he can to help a colleague struggling against enormous odds.

"Ours is a young profession in this country, but in China Dr. Xiao is a pioneer," Hay said. "We're going to do our best to help him, and establishing a student exchange program is the most meaningful thing we could do. The whole world has a stake in his work. I can't think of anything more valuable and satisfying than sponsoring his students." (Hay can be reached at 202/457-7064.)

Even if all the tentative commitments received so far are carried through, it will be years before the effects begin to be felt at the practical level.

"There is need in all areas of wildlife knowledge," Xiao said. "There is need for every skill. We are trying to organize a [professional] Chinese Wildlife Society. And we hope to start a citizens' group like your National Wildlife Federation, to benefit from the concern and voluntary efforts of the people. It will be many years before we will be able to build a large professional staff."

As an example of the public concern that gives him heart, Xiao told of a recent occurence in Beijing (Peking):

"Four wild swans came to a park in the city, which is well south of their natural range, and established themselves on a lake. A man shot one of them. During the Cultural Revolution it would have been considered proper to shoot them, but now the people were outraged. They asked the authorities to arrest the man and punish him.

"The man was asked to self-criticize himself, and to agree to pay a fee. The money was used to pay for taxidermy, and the mounted swan now is on display in the park. The other swans remain undisturbed, and we hope more will come."

A nation that can virtually eradicate houseflies simply by getting everybody to swat them can work wonders, and Xiao's approach is severely practical. "I dream of Jeeps and helicopters and radio telemetry and basic research," he said. "But we must do what we can with what we have. Right now the government cannot affort to allocate very much to wildlife conservation.

"We are putting out the word through magazines, newspapers, radio and television, educating the public to the correct attitude toward wildlife. It is a big problem; all aspects of education are a big problem for us.

"During the Cultural Revolution [which kept China in turmoil for a decade from 1966] all the schools were closed. All that time was lost, and it left us with great economic difficulties. There are places in the Chinese universities for only four percent of our high school graduates, and the need for biology students must be balanced against the need for engineers and industrial managers . . . " he shrugged, and smiled.

"Many young people in the cities are very reluctant to go to the mountains and the wilderness because the living there is very difficult. We have regions where you can drive for many days and never see another person." (About 90 percent of China's population is concentrated on the sixth of the land near the coast; its "outback makes our wilderness areas look vanishingly small.)

"But the problem is not finding enough students," Xiao said. "There are thousands of first-class applicants for every opening. The problem is to make more openings, and to do that we must find scholarships at foreign schools."

He stared into the middle district for a moment and took a sip of Coke. "Perhaps one day we will form an oversight committee, above the department level, to coordinate the actions of the different branches of government as they affect wildlife. That certainly will be necessary in the future."

In the present, however, Xiao confided, what we needed most was a second-hand typewriter with English characters that he could use for corresponding with Westerners; they're not to be had back home. Did the reporter know where he could find one that was durable, portable and cheap, especially cheap?

One was found, and donated by the owner to Xiao's embarrassingly effusive thanks. Perhaps someday somebody will find him a Jeep.