For nearly two decades, Feljpe Benavides served his country with distinction as a diplomat. Today, at 60, Benavides is taking on all comers in a battle to save Peru's natural resource.

Since his retirement from the diplomatic corps, Benavides has become Peru's preeminent conservationist.

In 1975, he won the first annual $50,000 J. Paul Getty Wildlife Conservation Prize for single-handedly saving Peru's vicuna from extinction.

When it comes to endangered animals, all semblance of diplomatic demeanor vanishes. Benavides shuts, he paces, and he pulls at his distinguished - albeit thinning - silver hair.

The current targets fo his wrath are the Peruvian fishermen who are clubbing to death baby seals on Peru's southern coast.

If the government does not halt the killing, Benavides says he intends to file a habeas corpus petition on behalf of the seals or - so he says, half jokingly club the murderers to death himself.

Many Peruvians, particlarly in the government, think Benavides is slightly mad. In a country where so many people are hungry, why waste so much energy on animals?

As in many developing nations, where the preservation of scarce resources takes a back seat to a desperate and constant need for income. Peruvians tend to view endangered animals such as seals, vicuna and Andean deer as little more than cash on the hoof.

This view enrages Benavides.

In a recent interview at his home, a rambling Spanish colonial estate, Benavides ranted and raved with abandon.

"Human rights," he bellowed. "What about nature rights?"

When his voice rises above a certain level, Benavides parrot - moe than 150 hiding in trees and cages on his jungle-like property - all start screeching at once, "Basta, papa, basta! (Enough papa, enough)."

His numerous dogs start howling, the ocelots' hair goes up on their backs, and large box turtle - crawling across the Peruvian rug - pulls in his head and legs.

Although peruvian las prohibits killing seals for their fur, in 1976 special government permits were issued for the killing of more than 3,000. Similar permits were granted in 1977 and this year.

The permits do not specify the tyoe if seal to be killed, and Benavides contends that a number of the baby seals that have had their heads bashed in are of the australis variety - the South American sea lion that is on the world's endangered species list.

According to Benavides, no more than 7,000 of these animals are left in Peru.

With proper protection, he argues, both the seals and the victims could reproduce from their current depleted state into the hundreds of thousands - enough for managed yearly harvesting that would give thousands of Peruvians work and income.

"I'm a practical conservationist - not sentimental one," Benavides says. "I want everybody to have a vicuna were once a main source of cashmere-like cloth for the Incas. Most Americans became familiar with the animals, which run wild in the highlands of Peru, Bolivia and Chile, when Eisenhower aide Sherman Adams lost his job over an expensive vicuna coat.

People in Europe still buy vicuna coats, according to Benavides. He says they are sold in France by Christian Dior, even though their killing and export was long ago prohinited.

After years of pressure from Benavides, and trips around the world where he gave speeches denouncing his own government. Peru establised a vicuna reserve in the Andes in 1968. From a low of 5,000, the vicuna population is now up to 50.000, Benavides said.

But there is not enough money to adequately guard the reserve, he said, and the animals are being killed by poachers. Benavides now directs his criticism at the governments involved, which he says turn a blind eye to the trade of vicuna pelts.

If he has not been abel to completely halt the slaughter of endangered species, Benavides has at least occasionally embarrased his government and the hunters enough to save some animal lives.

One of his most publicized harassments was directed at Prince Abdu Reza, a big game hunter and the brother of the shah of Iran. Last May, the Peruvian government granted the prince a permit to kill one of the rarest animals of all - the spectacled bear that lives in the high Andes.

Benavides called in the world press and caused a minor international furor. He also insulted the prince at an elegant Peruvian dinner party.

"This Abdu went to the president, and the idea was that the shah would come and lend money to Peru," Benavides said."Hah. He hasn't lent a bloody bean."

When he came down from the mountains, the prince said he hadn't seen a suitable bear.

"If he would have shot it, Benavides said, "I would have shot him."

The prince did, however, manage to bag a rare Andean deer - another prohibited species for which he was granted a government permit.

Another current target of Benavides' wrath is the Japanese, who, he says are illegally killing whales along the Peruvian coast.

It was the plight of the whales that first drew Benavides into conservationism. In 1952, on a diplomatic stop-over, he began a lawsuit against Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis a $2 million fine.

Peru is not part ofthe International Whaling Commission, which grants worldwide whaling quotas. Instead, peru sets its own quotas for a Japanese firm which has the country's sole whaling concession. This year, the Kinkai Whaling Co. is authorized to kill 1,200 whales in Peruvian waters.

"There has never been a proper study" of the Peruvian whale population, said Benavides, who alleges that the Japanese are illegally killing in a whale breeding ground. The only figures the government has, in fact, come from the Japanese themselves.

"The Japanese," Benavides said in explanation of his government's permissiveness, "have a lot of money invested" in near-bankrupt Peru.

Last month, Benavides escalated his running battle with Kinkai, which has warned the Peruvian government that Benavides' activities are "wounding the good relations between the Peruvian and Japanese people."

In early February, the 80-foot hulk of a dead blue whale washed up on the southern coast of Peru. The world's biggest creature - and one of its rarest - blue whales have been off limits for whalers in all countries of the world for decades.

In the side of the whale carcass was a gaping wound that Benavides charges could only have been made by a Japanese whaler's harpoon.

Benavides has started writing letters again - to the World Wildlife Fund, of which he is a director; to the Japanese government; to U.S. conservationists, who he said supported the candidacy of President Carter.

"You know what I have to say to them," Benavides shouted at his parrots. "Go home, Kinkai. Go home Japanese."