On PBS: saving the whooping crane; revitalizing the South

Is man obliged to preserve all wildlife forms on the planet? That's a question posed in the surprisingly provocative final edition of this season's Gulf/National Geographic series of specials.

The answer? An unqualified Yes.

Flight of the Whooping Crane (PBS, Wednesday, April 4, 8-9 p.m., check local listings for premiere and repeats) delves gingerly into one of today's most delicate wildlife preservation activities - the battle to save the endangered whooping cranes, a species which, by 1942, was down to a population of only 21.

Scientists estimate that for about 1 million years, the whooping cranes had been seasonally migrating from the marshlands of the Texas Gulf Coast to nesting grounds in icy Canada, 2,500 miles north. Then, around 1935, hazardous chemicals in the water, the erosion of the marshland, and the polluted atmosphere, as well as changes in land usage along the migratory route, started to affect the natural growth of whooping crane communities.

This five-foot-tall, monog-omous creature, which indulges in a joyous courtship dance as it whoops delightedly for its mate, was on the edge of extinction for all time. The scientific community tried everything - artificial insemination, banding, tracking, breeding in the wild, breeding in captivity, incubating eggs in the lab, finding surrogate cranes to hatch purloined eggs, foster-parenting. Eventually, a combination of all methods seems to be working and, right now, there are all of 144 whooping cranes surviving in the wilds and in captivity, with a hopeful prognosis for the future of the species.

If this special concentrates a bit too much on the tracking of the beautiful creatures and not enough on the bird itself, it is, perhaps, to be expected, since the scientists are so proud of their own seemingly successful methodology.

This joyous documentary is produced by David F. Oyster and narrated by John Huston, a man with a calm voice and a soothing manner, who obviously believes with Audubon Society biologist David Blankinship that ''if we lose the whooping crane, we've lost something of great beauty . . . forever.'' The film makes its point of view very clear: This generation owes it to future generations to prevent the whooping crane from becoming extinct. According to those interviewed , the obligation may very well extend to all species extant today.

Certainly it is to be hoped that, through the varied methods detailed in the documentary, the whooping crane has been rescued for many future generations. If the whooper should still disappear completely, however, there is at least this dazzlingly beautiful film to remind us of those extraordinary creatures that soared north

for so many years.

Wicker on the South

The Old South is dead! Long Live the New Sunbelt!

''Tobacco Road is now an Interstate Highway,'' insists New York Times writer Tom Wicker, host of A Different Dixie: Portraits of Change (PBS, Wednesday, April 4, 10-11 p.m., check local listings for premiere and repeats). This Georgia Public Television production takes an incisive, if openly partisan, look at 40 years of change in the American South.

Wicker, a native of North Carolina, documents the change he has seen take place - change that caused strife but, as he points out, ''change that came at last to the region that resisted it the longest.''

Producer-director Alvin H. Goldstein, together with Wicker and several fine photographers, has created a dynamic portrait of the new dynamism which seems to be propelling the old ''sleepytime'' South into an era of high-tech industrialization surging alongside modern agricultural methods.

Although many points of view are expressed, four major scenarios are presented: the story of a white Columbia, S.C., minister whose major influence was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; the man behind some black industries of Greenville, Miss.; an industrial developer in Wilson, N.C.; and an essay on black opportunities in Atlanta.

If Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young comes in for seemingly excessive praise in the Atlanta segment, well, one must keep in mind that this is a production of Georgia Public Television.

But despite the fact that Tom Wicker is one of America's most highly respected journalists, he is still a ''good ole boy'' from the South. It reveals itself in his optimistic hope that, as the New South destroys its old identity it will find a new identity as strong as the old. One with ''a higher goal than the rootless, plastic society that so many Americans elsewhere find so unrewarding.''

''A Different Dixie'' is an effective stereotype smasher as it destroys misguided images about the South which the North has cherished for some two centuries. Yes, it is true, Rhett Butler doesn't live there anymore.

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