Cable television takes bleak look at African ecosystem

``Desertification'' is a new word, because it is a new phenomenon. But it is a word viewers of The End of Eden (WTBS, Thursday, March 13, 8:05 p.m. and Sunday, March 23, 4:05 p.m.) will not forget easily. Desertification is the process by which fertile, productive land is turned into useless desert. It is a man-made process, which is expanding at a rate of 100 square miles a day in Africa.

``The End of Eden'' is a lushly photographed cry for international action written, produced, directed, and photographed by Rick Lomba. He wants the world to realize that only 150 years after the colonization of Africa, less than 1 percent of the wild animals remain.

According to Mr. Lomba, the environment is collapsing, taking with it the traditional way of life for the native population. He sees little in the future but a move to the cities and urban squalor.

Food aid from the rest of the world can help the African population to survive only a little longer, the film insists, since abuse of African ecosystems has destroyed the land. Neither increased tourism, food aid, nor improved conservation methods will be able to stem the destruction. The wilderness, according to Lomba, has simply become a victim of growing human need and callousness.

It is a miserable tale Lomba tells, shocking in its harsh determination to present its facts without embellishment. Most of the emphasis is on the negative, with far too little attention paid to the various ways already being tried to solve the African dilemma.

If there is any softening, it is in the sensationally beautiful cinematography, which somehow makes even the barrenness of the desert and the denudification of the wilderness seem savagely majestic.

It is ironic, writer-director-producer-photographer Lomba points out, that thousands of tourists arrive to see the wildlife and seem totally unaware that they are seeing a vestigial civilization, with tourists far outnumbering the animals. Is this the future, he asks with devastating directness: a herd of buses roaming the countryside in search of remnants from the past?

Lomba's conclusion is disheartening: If Africa cannot be steered clear of its disastrous course, he insists, there is little reason to be optimistic about the future of this planet.

Immediately after ``Eden,'' TBS is airing Under the Baobab Tree: A discussion of Africa Today, a round table on critical issues confronting Africa, with some focus on the ``Eden'' film. The forum, moderated by Sanford Ungar, includes experts in wildlife conservation and other African issues. They seem to agree that the film focuses too much on the down side, with not enough emphasis on the fact that ``for the first time in the history of Africa there are governments conscious of environment and the need for planning.''

The conflict between tradition and high-tech is discussed, and there is agreement on the great need for a compact between Africa and the rest of the world to move ahead while at the same time honoring culture and tradition. But, says one panelist, those nostalgic for the ``old Africa'' of white hunters and safaris had better become adjusted to the fact that ``It'll never be the same again.'' World of Audubon

Turner Broadcasting is on the verge of becoming the country's No. 1 conservation and wildlife network. In addition to the ``Eden'' and ``Baobab'' specials, Turner's Cable News Network has produced a 13-part series of special news reports on the current crisis in Africa which will air March 3 through March 23. Its title: Africa's Crisis: The Eleventh Hour.

In addition, ``Condor,'' the first of a new ``World of Audubon Specials'' aired on WTBS on March 1 and will be repeated March 12, 16, and 25.

Narrated in delightfully nonportentous tones by Robert Redford, the thought-provoking one-hour documentary uses man's attempts to save the few remaining condors as a metaphor for saving the world for future generations. The film makes it clear that it is a matter of emotion and philosophy as well as of science and conservation. ``The natural world will only be preserved if we cherish it.''

Turned out under the aegis of executive producer Christopher Palmer, the ``World of Audubon Specials'' will be also be aired on PBS starting in July. Turner will then syndicate the series so that it will be seen by many millions. It deserves a wide audience. Certainly the premi`ere is a fine start -- a sensitive, empathic look at the relationship between man and the creatures that fly above us.

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