The difference between Sandy Price and the average idealistic young imbecile was quite marked, even some years ago, when she sold all she had and went to Africa to save elephants.

Usually the revolution, in a manner of speaking, is desired to be conducted without financial or any other sacrifice greater than disrupting the Bolshoi Ballet early enough in the evening to get home for quiche and pot.

With Price it was different, even though she began as a standard American small-town girl interested, as they all are, only in high fashion and wild animals.

She left Lebanon, Ohio, and moved into Greenwich Village 20 years ago and was making her way in the fashion industry, "as Girl Friday for Bill Blass," a garment designer, when something apparently snapped, such as a dawning sense that life should be worth living.

"I sold my stuff but I was too timid to do more than sublet my apartment for a year. I hoped I could survive for a year in Africa, where I didn't even know anybody in the entire continent, and then if nothing worked out I could come back to New York."

She may have seemed ill-suited to nursing sick lions, or whatever else she had in mind, since she had had little practice and moreover did not look quite right for the bush with her tawny hair, lapis eyes, smart clothes and general baggage of the typical 9.6.

But as it has turned out, she has been in Africa 13 years now and runs the continental offices of the African Wildlife Leadership Foundation.

She lives in a little stone cottage a few miles from Nairobi, to which she commutes daily in her Volkswagen past the jet-filled international airport, then at night she toddles home exhausted to spend another evening with her Great Dane and two mongrel mutts (the Dane's ears are not clipped, since you will wonder; she is a humane woman and her early experience possibly has freed her from the deeper idiocies of fashion). Sometimes she nods to the wild lions that saunter near the house.

She has not expected, nor found, total perfection. She is a gardener and surprises herself a little by attending horticultural society meetings and having tea with the ancient remnants of British gardening in Kenya. But she has adapted: Her garden is full of cacti and desert plants. She does not go into a blue funk during the Kenyan droughts (as gardeners do who persist in trying sweet peas in that climate).

Nor did she think, even to begin with, that her arrival would signal the general salvation of life on earth. She got a little job and worked hard and now she has 50,000 teen-agers on her hands and wonders how it happens that she went to work with the animals and wound up with kids.

She did not dream up nature clubs, the Kenyans did, but when they showed an interest she leapt in with all 14 feet and now there are 867 such clubs, with a detectable (some say incalculable) effect on wildlife preservation.

"Most of them have never seen a wild animal," she said. And yet the wildlife is African. It is their heritage and if the animals are ever to be saved, Africans will save them, not Americans.

The kids study. They survey their own urban habitats. They collect animal stories from old people. They learn all they can. They protest against poachers, they protest shops that sell novelties carved from the national treasure of wildlife. They raise money and sometimes can afford to take a bus trip to see the genuine lions in the genuine wild.

"Of course you take a beating when somebody hollers 'Lion' on the bus and a ton of youngsters comes down on you," but what a way to go.

Her work, recently noted by an award presented by Prince Philip of England, is very slow.

Unlike politics the cause of change in wildlife conservation is not done quickly, nor done by imbeciles.

It is a long road. Sandy Price will die before it is barely begun, even if she lives 50 years.

The first point of the foundation is that Africans can and will preserve their natural treasure, and do not require patronizing Lady-Bountiful directions from the likes of us. There is a line, which everyone detects, between useful service and lofty condescension, and the foundation tries never to stray to the wrong side of it.

The foundation did help establish two African colleges to teach Africans the state-of-the-art techniques of conservation. Many have been graduated, some have become game wardens, some have risen high in the governments of the new African states and had a voice in national wildlife policy.

Sandy's foundation has helped. They have provided radios, uniforms, spare parts for game-preserve cars, and they have raced to the rescue of a gorilla caught in a poacher's trap (freed, nursed back to health and released). They have done, by any standard of civilized achievement, good work.

But wild populations are not a cause that you can go home and get the champagne out because you helped a lovely gorilla once. The rising generations will have to think of the animals as their own heritage. The citizen of Africa will have to be the one to make it unacceptable for rare animals to wind up on the necks, feet and God knows where else of stupid men and women.

There is no known quickstep to the brains and hearts of children; only the careful, steady, long-term engagement of their interest and support. This is the cause, and the purpose, of the 867 clubs with the 50,000 kids, and if it is less thrilling than shouting for somebody's blood, still its results may prove more real 30 years from now.

Sandy touched the necklace of large leaves of gold at her neck.

"You have not got over fashion," it was suggested.

"These are African," she said.

"What guarantee do we have that you won't open a boutique in New York selling stuffed gazelles or something?" she was asked, mainly to see how apoplexy looked on her.

"Don't think I will," she said. And the little flush of color, the little edge to her voice, were most attractive.