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Race to Save Resources : Conservationist Enlists Help of Asia's Buddhists

February 13, 1986|BEVERLY BEYETTE | Times Staff Writer

Growing up in greater Kansas City, Nancy Nash used to be on the side of the prairie dogs in their ongoing confrontation with the golfers on the course adjacent to her house.

Years later, a full-fledged conservationist, she would initiate the first contact between the Switzerland-based World Wildlife Fund International and the Chinese government, leading to a major cooperative effort to save the endangered giant pandas. She would also arrange a panda "event" for Nancy Reagan during the First Lady's visit to the Peking zoo in April, 1984.

Pandas and Siberian Tigers

(For the record, Nash, who has visited in-cage with a nearly grown panda, said the adorable-to-look-at panda is nice to know. "I've met a couple of nasty ones, but for the most part they're utterly charming," she said.)

In 1983, while serving as a conservation officer and consultant to the World Wildlife Fund-Hong Kong, she helped to arrange for seven Siberian tigers, members of another endangered species native to China, to be transported from the Bronx and Minneapolis zoos to China. The tigers were a gift to Chinese zoos from U.S. zoos, which had been breeding them successfully.

"They were inbreeding in China," Nash said, "and needed new genetic material." The tigers were "very big, enormous, and very angry" by the time they arrived--via Flying Tigers airlines. "I've seen all of those tigers since," she said, "and they're doing very well. I think they'll be breeding this year."

Now Nash has enlisted the aid of the world's foremost Buddhist, the Dalai Lama, in rallying the Buddhists of Thailand and the Tibetan refugee community in India to try to save the animal life and natural resources of those areas in the face of accelerating forest decimation and water pollution.

Nash, who describes herself as "a Christian, a lapsed Christian," has no illusions about saving the Asians and their environment by "confronting them from outside with foreign formulas.

"Can you imagine," she asked, "Nancy Nash from Kansas trying to do a Buddhist project in Asia without some personal contact? It doesn't work." And she just happens to number the Dalai Lama, "a marvelous person" and a staunch conservationist, among her friends.

Nash, the daughter of a golf course architect, was 18, a self-described "closet academic," a rebel and a high school dropout, when 22 years ago she left Kansas City for Europe, where she lived for 18 months, headquartered in Frankfurt, West Germany, and working for an insurance agency.

"Once I started moving, I just kept moving," said Nash, whose three siblings opted for a traditional Middle-America existence. Returning from Europe, she spent a year at home, just long enough to raise the money to take off for Asia in 1965. She has been home-based since 1966 in Hong Kong "in a flat with a harbor view, disappearing fast" behind high-rises. "I could go on exploring Asia forever. It's a constant carnival."

Nash's first stop in Asia was Japan, where she lived for a year while writing a children's book about--what else?--a little girl and her animals. With the money earned from that book she got on a boat for Hong Kong, where a job in public relations led two years later to a position with Hilton International as area PR director. She stayed at that post for eight years, a time during which Nash, who learned to speak Mandarin Chinese, also became a wildlife columnist for the English-language magazine Asia and a free-lance photojournalist.

Next, it was off to Northeast Thailand to take part in an important bronze excavation. "I helped them pack up," she said of her contribution. She then spent a year in Europe, most of it in France, made a trip to North Africa and, with actress Yvette Mimieux, a journey to Iran.

Nash and Mimieux are longtime friends who have frequently traveled together in Asia and, on Nash's recent visit to Los Angeles, she was the actress's house guest in Bel-Air. Their friendship began 18 years ago when Nash, in her office at the Hong Kong Hilton, was alerted that "there's a famous movie star and she's got some monkeys in her room." The actress was Mimieux, who was baby-sitting her two South American pet monkeys that had roles in a film being shot in Asia.

A friendship was struck immediately. The two later agreed to travel together to Malaysia and, Nash said, "Since then we've explored and explored."

The ongoing U.S.-Chinese effort to save the pandas, which have been threatened with extinction because of the disappearance of their favorite food, bamboo, began with Nash in the summer of 1979 while she was working at World Wildlife Fund headquarters in Switzerland. Reasoning that the panda had been adopted by the organization for its logo, yet it was not doing anything for pandas, Nash had asked, "You've got the panda symbol. Why don't you have a panda project?" The organization's response: "It's impossible." Nash's response to their response: "I'll do it then."

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