Mingma Norbu Sherpa

WWF conservationist

Mingma Norbu Sherpa, conservationist: born Khunde, Nepal 1955; married (two children); died Ghunsa, Nepal 23 September 2006.

Born in the shadow of Everest, Mingma Norbu Sherpa learned to read at the three-room Khumjung schoolhouse founded for Sherpa children by the mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary in 1960. He went on to gain international acclaim as a conservationist, eventually managing programmes in 20 different Asian countries for the World Wide Fund for Nature.

He died on Saturday after the chartered Russian helicopter in which he was travelling crashed in swirling mists on the slopes of Kangchenjunga, the world's third highest mountain, near the Nepalese frontier with Sikkim. He had just completed a million-dollar WWF bio-diversity programme in the Kangchenjunga Conservation Area, and the group on board was returning from a ceremony marking the handover of the conservation area from Nepal's government to the local community, meeting the village elders who will manage this ambitious "Sacred Himalayan Landscape" scheme. All 24 passengers, including WWF staff and Nepalese officials, perished.

"When I was a child, I had the opportunity to meet one of the most remarkable and extraordinary men of this century. His name is Sir Edmund Hillary," he told US Congressmen two years ago, while seeking their support to counter global warming and conserve the glaciers on the world's highest peaks.

After studying abroad with the support of the Hillary Foundation - at the universities of Canterbury, New Zealand, and Manitoba, Canada - Mingma Norbu returned to Nepal in 1985 and was the first Sherpa to be appointed Warden of the Sagarmatha (Everest) National Park. He went on to direct conservation in Annapurna, and then joined WWF to supervise wildlife conservation in Nepal and Bhutan. In 1998, Mingma moved to Washington DC to direct all of WWF's programmes in Nepal and Bhutan. He worked out pragmatic means to bring basic health care and education to the impoverished villagers who shared his beloved Eastern Himalayas with the endangered snow leopards, tigers, and one-horned rhinos that captivated more donors.

The messenger turned out to be just as crucial as the message. Dismayed at the litter and sewage left by Western trekkers and climbers on the roof of the world, Mingma Norbu explained why he was running his Khumbu clean-up programme through a Buddhist monastery at Tengboche. "We were sick of hearing that Everest is a toilet bowl," he recalled. "If the Lama talks, everybody listens. If it's a politician, nobody does."

He took this notion further last year after studies revealed that Tibetan tiger traders in Lhasa were wiping out the 5,000 big cats remaining in the wild. Mingma Norbu personally approached the Dalai Lama and persuaded him to condemn the shameful black market in tiger pelts used for folk rituals or tiger bone and organs ground up by the hundredweight for arcane Chinese aphrodisiacs and unguents. After the Dalai Lama publicly denounced the use of exotic furs and the sale of tiger parts in February 2006, it ignited a firestorm. At monasteries across Tibet, villagers converged to set heaps of vintage fur-trimmed garments ablaze and fetid bonfires smudged the sky.

To spread environmental awareness, Mingma Norbu reached out to backpackers as well as industrialists. For an MTV travelogue, Trippin' (2005), the actress Cameron Diaz trailed after Mingma Norbu on anti-poaching patrol and rode with him on elephant-back.

Only once did he contradict his mentor, Sir Edmund Hillary, who famously abandoned a search for the Abominable Snowman, or yeti, and concluded the high-altitude hominid was most likely a bear. Last year, when pressed by an Italian reporter for his opinion about an alleged yeti scalp, Mingma Norbu Sherpa, who had studied the natural history of the creature, replied that the "yeti is definitely not a brown bear, because bears cannot go higher than 3,500m".

The American crypto-zoologist Loren Coleman said, "The crash of a helicopter in Nepal could have a far-reaching impact on Abominable Snowmen habitat efforts and studies."

Jan McGirk