Harold Jefferson Coolidge is a bull elephant of the global conservation movement. His organizational genius initiated some of the leading nongovernmental international organizations for preserving wildlife -- shaping the world effort to save animals and their habitats.

Ask this Harvard-trained zoologist, as we did during an interview at his solar-heated home in Beverly, Mass., where the cause of conservation stands today, and he unburdens his most immediate concern: what is happening in Washington.

He views with utter disbelief and dismay Reagan administration proposals which are, he believes, unraveling the fabric of the movement he has spent 50 years constructing --arrangements for protecting the environment which he had hoped were established for all time. Among them:

* Secretary of the Interior James G. Watt's stated intention to give park concessionaires, who operate hotels, restaurants, and shops in US national parks , a greater role in managing the parks. "Terrible, crazy stuff," Mr. Coolidge says.

* The secretary's consideration of a plan to permit mining in the wilderness system.

"We know from past experience that when these things happen you lose control. It is bad for the country. It destroys a resource which should be saved for the benefit of future generations. I don't say that some of [the public lands] should not be opened up. But the best thing is to have federal control of them and not turn them over to exploitation. . . .

"I think what Mr. Watt is going to realize," he continues, "is that when he upsets things that have been established, like the sacredness of the national parks, he will find there is quite an upwelling of antagonism against him. . . ."

* The drastic reduction of the Council on Environmental Quality. This last step is especially alarming to Mr. Coolidge. The CEQ, a tiny, three-man Cabinet-level body set up in 1970 by President Nixon under provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, was established to advise the president on environmental issues and to oversee compliance of federal agencies with that law.

After deciding not to abolish the council altogether, President Reagan has fired all but a couple of CEQ's professional staff members, slashed its staff from 50 to 16, and cut its fiscal 1982 budget by 72 percent. The administration contends that its functions can be carried out by other federal agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency. But spokesmen for CEQ have been quoted as saying that in its truncated condition there is no way it can carry out all its mandated responsibilities.

In terms of conservation, Mr. Coolidge sums up, "The dreadful thing is that we [in the United States] have got off the track."

The problem is that everybody believes that conservation comes at the expense of development. "But that is not the case," he stresses.

From the conservationists' point of view, the CEQ cutbacks by the Reagan administration could hardly come at a more inappropriate time. Just last spring , the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) launched a 36-nation "World Conservation Strategy." "The World Strategy shows that you can have both the right kind of development and conservation of basic animal and plant life perfectly well. It is just a question of working out the best way to develop such an amalgam."

As a member of the American delegation to the 1948 Fontainebleau Conference in France, Mr. Coolidge helped found IUCN, whose headquarters are in Gland, Switzerland. A past president, he is now honorary president, a life post.

"This union has been going for 32 years," he says. "It is the most effective and important nongovernmental organization in this whole field of the environment and conservation of species and habitats."

Its World Conservation Strategy brings into focus in one pithy document every objective Mr. Coolidge has been working toward for half a century. He regards it as "the most important program that has ever been promulgated internationally for savings the environment."

The World Strategy was a five-year project of the IUCN, developed with the cooperation and financial assistance from its sister organization, the World Wildlife Fund, and the United Nations Environment Program.

The strategy makes plain that the problem of continued destruction of the natural environment, including wildlife and plants, stems directly from the planet's exploding human population and that its solution lies first in more universal awareness of what man is doing to nature, and then in appropriate measures to correct the abuse.

IUCN synthesizes its sober warning in three cartoons. In the first, captioned 1980, a stalk of grain and a tree are taller than the small man standing beside them. In 2000 the man is taller than both. In 2020 the stalk and tree are dwarfed by a towering man.

"If current rates of land degradation continue," the text states, "close to one third of the world's arable land [symbolized by the stalk of grain] will be destroyed in the next 20 years. Similarly, by the end of this century (at present rates of clearance), the remaining area of unlogged productive tropical forest will be halved.

"During this period, the world population is expected to increase by almost half -- from just over 4,000 million to just under 6,000 million. The predicament caused by growing numbers of people demanding scarcer resources is exacerbated by the disproportionately high consumption rates of developed countries."

In short, the strategy calls for "integration of conservation and development to ensure that modifications to the planet do indeed secure the survival and well-being of all people."

Mr. Coolidge says, "We are trying to get every government in the world to develop a strategy for its own country in accordance with recommendations in this master document." So far the most favorable response has come from such developing countries as Indonesia and China, which have asked the IUCN for advice in coping with their environmental problems.

The budget-struck CEQ issued the first full-scale demographic and ecological model in history just a few months after the World Strategy was released. The State Department collaborated with the CEQ on the three-year study ordered by President Carter and entitled "Global 2000."

Using its own data, the CEQ produced a 766-page tome confirming that Earth is indeed in trouble, that excessive world population growth, dwindling resources, and environmental degradation represent serious threats to the political and economic security of the US.

The report is not a prediction of doom, but an effort to project factually how things will be if humanity doesn't change its practices. The most quoted passage has been:

"If present trends continue, the world in 2000 will be more crowded, more polluted, less stable ecologically, and more vulnerable to disruption than the world we live in now. Barring revolutionary advances in technology, life for most people on earth will be more precarious in 2000 than it is now --unless the nations of the world act decisively to alter current trends."

President Carter immediately called for a major and sustained national and international effort to cope with these global problems. At this critical juncture, when America could be taking a leading role in improving the global conservation outlook, environmentalists believe the White House is leading the US in exactly the opposite direction.

"I think what we need most of all now is to have general awareness of what is reported in the World Conservation Strategy and in the Global 2000 reports," Mr. Coolidge says. To that end, he and Mrs. Coolidge are sponsoring a pioneer course at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., called "Global Environmental Strategies in the New England Context." Lectures are being taped and will be available to universities or colleges wishing to give a similar course.

There is some better news on the environmental scene, however. Mr. Coolidge picks up a recent report from Threshold, International Center for Environmental Renewal, with a sketch on the cover of a friendly-looking one-horned rhinoceros with a bird sitting on its shoulder.

"Last night," he said, "I was reading this report of a scientific expedition to Nepal. Threshold was asked by the Nepalese government to advise them what to do about a lot of native villages that adjoin the new Royal Chitawan National Park that has been established to save the Asian rhino, of which there are only a few hundred left."

Pandampur Panchayat, an area containing 16 villages and about 10,000 farmers, juts into the park like a long thumb south of the Rapti River. It is the park's main rhino habitat.

The problem is the classic conflict, now raging worldwide, between the needs of wildlife and the needs of mankind. These Nepalese farmers depend on the surrounding park forests for thatch for their roofs, timber for their houses, wood for their fires, wild plants for their cooking, and supplemental grazing for their livestock.

"Unfortunately," the report states, "the wild animals of the park like supplementing their diet with the crops of the farms as much as the farmers enjoy taking advantage of the free natural resources within walking distance of their villages."

It would take an extremely strong, deep, high, and expensive fence to withstand attacks from charging rhinos, rooting wild pigs, and leaping deer.

The report's recommended solution is an interesting switch: Move the people. "In that way," Mr. Coolidge says, "you can safeguard the park with all its basic resources and at the same time the people will have a better agricultural land in some other location. And they are beginning to do it!" he says with enthusiasm.

Tigers in India are getting the same kind of break, for a change. For hundreds of years, tiger hunting was the sport of Indian maharajas as well as tribesmen. Today the government is determined to save what is left of these magnificent cats. Eleven reserves have been set aside for them free of all human interference, even when this meant displacing farmers.

For example, in the Kanha Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, 4,000 villagers have been moved from 20 villages in the central area. They have been given new homes, wells, and schools and provided with financial means for improving their cultivation. The result: Wildlife in the reserve is on the increase. From 43 tigers in 1975, at last count there were 62.

What is more, tiger poaching in the reserves has been either brought under control or completely eliminated by antipoaching camps set up in the reserves and by intensive patrolling by fast-moving government vehicles manned by armed guards. The World Wildlife Fund, another organization Mr. Coolidge helped to found, which finances IUCN and other conservation projects, has promised a million dollars for India's Project Tiger. More than half of that has already been provided for the purchase of antipoaching patrol vehicles, radio equipment, personnel training, etc.

Why would anyone want to preserve a toothy predator like a tiger or, say, a crocodile?

"People," Mr. Coolidge replies, "will argue with you and say: 'Wouldn't India be better off without any tigers, because tigers kill a certain number of people who would have survived had there been no tigers?'

"Actually, tigers play a very important role in controlling wildlife. I think we should not allow any species to vanish from the face of the earth, because of their possible use for future generations. . . . We haven't scratched the surface of the knowledge that can be acquired about the values of the living species throughout the world -- from insects up to whales. . . ."

"The world is richer because of the existence of tigers," he declares. He almost sounds like a small boy when he adds: "If you had no tigers, I think it would be very unfortunate."

He reaches for another publication, the IUCN Bulletin, and flips to a page headed: "Can Science Save Amazonia?" Huge areas of tropical forest in the Amazon's soil-rich floodplain have been felled to make way for agriculture, mainly rice cultivation and cattle ranching. And a large forested area along one of its tributaries, the Rio Tefe, is being zoned for a big agricultural experiment.

In explaining "Why the Amazon forest needs piranhas" --a small, voracious fish -- Robert Lamb reports in the Bulletin that a survey under way in the Amazon Basin floodplains, the first of its kind, has "turned up evidence of a remarkable interdependence of fish and forest. Between June and November the waters of the Amazon and its tributaries flood a 40,000-square-mile area. The fish swim into the forest and feed on the seeds and fruits falling into the water.

"The fish depend on the trees of the floodplain for food and in turn the trees depend on the fish to disperse the seeds. More than 200 fish and tree species have been identified which rely on each other in this way."

Dr. Michael Goulding, leader of the project, says fish even linger under trees waiting for fruit to drop. Some rubber trees have seed pods that explode in the hot sun and shoot their seeds out. "You'd hear a 'pop' when they exploded," he says, "then a 'plop' when a seed hit the water, and finally a 'gulp' as the fish swallow the seed."

Fish are a major source of food for Amazonians. In heavily deforested areas, the fish population has drastically declined. Fishermen there have been put out of business -- "a harbinger of what will happen to the fishing industry as a whole if all the trees are felled," Mr. Lamb warns.

He hopes this project, being run by the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazonia, with support by IUCN and the World Wildlife Fund, will help keep as much of the floodplain as possible in its natural state. "The Brazilians," he says, "may yet find that fish and timber are a better harvest than beef and rice."

The kouprey, the Cambodian name for a very rare and primitive form of wild forest ox, is a prime example of wildlife, with unknown potential for man, now teetering on the brink of extinction.

This is one of the three animals with which Mr. Coolidge is closely identified as a primatologist, the others being the gorilla and the pygmy chimpanzee. He studied and described the kouprey as a new genus and named it Novibos.

"It's a living remnant of a very ancient stock that is probably ancestral to domestic cattle," he says. "There is a great desire on the part of scientists all over the world to breed these animals in captivity. They might be very good for cross-breeding to strengthen certain strains of cattle for tropical grazing purposes. But we have never been able to capture this animal alive."

It is caught in the toils of Cambodia's chaos, and its habitat is in the very area where most of the fighting is still going on.Its numbers have dropped from a known 500 to an estimated 50.

"From the native point of view these forest ox are just meat on the hoof," Mr. Coolidge says, "so they shoot them and eat them as if they were wild beef. But they are shooting the rarest living large mammal in the world."

Despite such sad stories as that of the kouprey and the tremendous amount of illegal poaching now going on of African elephants and rhinos for their extremely valuable ivory and horn, Mr. Coolidge feels that "there has been great progress made in the last 30 years in waking up America and the world to what conservation is all about and why it is necessary." It is this awareness that is most needed, he says, and it is certainly growing.

"When I started over 50 years ago in this field, hardly anybody was interested in it or knew anything about it. Now on TV programs and everywhere else you look, people are becoming more and more conscious of the importance of antilitter, stopping pollution, and saving endangered species."

The World Wildlife Fund alone is pumping $4.5 million a year into the conservation cause. Its latest yearbook lists no fewer than 325 pages of scientific projects under way all over the world funded at least in part by them and participated in by thousands of scientists.

After World War II, Mr. Coolidge recalls, it was generally believed that as the native governments sprang up to replace colonial ones, "there would be no hope for conservation, because by the time native peoples became sophisticated enough to understand the concept, all the animals would be slaughtered."

But this was not the case. "We got a head start under the colonial regime and were able to maintain that momentum. Nowadays, the best hope for saving endangered species for future generations to enjoy is in the national parks and reserves which we set up in those days and which have been enlarged since then.This is a great thing for the future, because in areas that are not in parks or reserves, the game, except for small animals, already has been wiped out almost entirely."

African governments by and large are trying very hard to keep on protecting wildlife, he says, because they see its monetary value. Tourism is Kenya's second-largest income. Fifteen percent of Zaire, formerly the Belgian Congo, is now in wildlife parks or reserves. There are some 1.5 million animals in Tanzania's famous Serengeti National Park. He calls it "an animal paradise, the finest animal park in the world."

When he began his conservation work, Mr. Coolidge's greatest interest was gathering informaiton on endangered species. In the '50s he founded IUCN's Species Survival Commission. Today this has more than 40 groups with expert knowlesge of birds, reptiles, fish, and plants. Their "Red Book" gives basic information about endangered species to help governments write protective laws.

By the 1960s he saw the need for a worldwide network of national parks to safeguard species in their native habitats. He has played a leading role in assisting nations to set up such a chain. "We now have over 2,000 national parks in various countries and about 30 new ones being established every year," Mr. Coolidge reports.

The International Union even has botanists stirred up on the topic of conservation, because it is estimated that about 25,000 species of plants will probably become extinct in the next few years.

Take Madagascar: Seventy percent of the wild orchids that once could have been found on the island are now extinct. What is left can only be safeguarded in reserves. Yet the island government, Mr. Coolidge reports, is not interested in doing so. It wants to clear land for agriculture regardless of the destruction of the forests.

One of the 10 conservation organizations of which Mr. Coolidge is a trustee is the Tropical Botanic Garden Foundation in Honolulu, which maintains a botanical garden into which are introduced endangered plants from all over the world.

"The kind of civilization we are building up," he says, "is extremely destructive to the natural environment. To get people, even in a civilized country, to see this is pretty difficult. . . . What we want to develop is a philosophy of man inm and with nature, not againstm nature."

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