A Vivid and Expansive Look at The Elephant's Shrinking World. Threatened species pictured at work, at play, and in the wild. TELEVISION: PREVIEW

ELEPHANT PBS, Wed., 8-9 p.m. (check local listings). National Geographic special co-produced by WQED/Pittsburgh. YOU can watch them scoop up massive tree trunks like twigs.

You can see them kneel in submission to allow ridiculously puny humans to scramble onto their backs.

Best of all, you can see them move majestically through their dwindling natural domain, ``nature's great masterpiece,'' as the poet Donne called them, ``the only harmless great thing, the giant of beasts.''

Donne went on to urge, ``Let us now behold the elephant,'' and this absorbing documentary has the good sense to spend enough time doing just that: simply beholding this awesome creature in a remarkable variety of settings. The show is a fact-filled, multi-faceted historical canvas of elephants as they work, play, and too often are mercilessly cut down by poachers.

But whatever the scene, it's the wonder of the elephant itself that makes the special worth watching. There is something dreamlike about elephants in action. They move in slow motion, looming as though from the subconscious. And if that isn't enough to compel interest, their very vastness makes everything they do seem amazing.

In this show we see them working in Thailand, parading in Sri Lanka, roaming in Africa. One of the special's many services, in fact, is to remind viewers how integral this giant has been to so many people. No other animal has worked so intimately with man.

In Asia, for instance, a mahout is, in effect, married to his beast, since the relationship is permanent, and the lifespans are roughly the same. And when there's no work, hard-up mahouts find other ways of making money. In Bangkok, one of them is seen letting people walk under his elephant for a fee - good luck, you know. His charge accepts a coin and passes it to the mahout on his back with his trunk.

That appendage, with its 100,000 muscles, is one of the marvels of nature, and before the program is over we are suitably impressed with all it can do. Besides heaving logs and popping peanuts into the mouth, it can pick up scents five miles away. In one Thai village, handlers are so confident of the trunk's infallibility they let elephants walk the length of a column formed by their prostrate bodies, smelling and feeling their way below, even though the beasts cannot see directly beneath their heads.

It's one of the acts in a kind of elephant rodeo, covered by the program, which includes elephant soccer and an interspecies tug-of-war: one elephant vs. 100 men. It's a mismatch. The elephant drags the men and their rope like ants on a string.

But the elephant is losing a bigger contest - the struggle for survival. There are shots of the dessicated carcasses of elephants shot for ivory, whose price is going up. Even more horrific are scenes of elephants being ``culled,' a euphemism for slaughtered. Shooters walk up and fire on the giants close-up, sometimes scrambling on top of just-killed beasts to get a better shot at another. Calves, wide-eyed with fright, climb across the bodies.

Ironically, it's all part of an effort to help the elephant make it into the next generation in the face of merciless poaching and encroaching civilization. Footage from a plane flight in the 1930s shows waves of elephants washing across the veldt. That was in the days when Africa had an estimated 10 million of them, and you could see 10,000 elephants from the air in two hours. As a recent shot proves, you can fly a long time today without seeing one elephant.

But the large- and small-scale counter efforts depicted in this special are heartening. Scientists are studying elephant ways, hoping to learn enough in time to fend off disaster. We even see a rare elephant birth in the US, and view the baby six months later, healthy and rambunctious.

The program claims elephants are the most revered and most vulnerable of all animals. After seeing this special, you can believe it.

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