Surprising life of wild elephants

Be prepared: You may never again enjoy seeing zoo elephants once you have viewed ''We Live With Elephants'' on PBS. This Survival Anglia Ltd. program, one of the superb series of ''Survival Specials'' (PBS, airing next week, check local listings, since many PBS stations are using it for their fund-raising efforts), once and for all reveals that elephants are not merely the clumsy, ''cute,'' placid creatures they appear to be in menageries all over the world.

According to narrator David Niven, reading a script by Colin Wilcock, culled from the five-year association with elephants of Dr. Ian Douglas-Hamilton and his family, elephants are intelligent, sensitive, family-oriented creatures who maintain strong blood ties and whose family relationships are amazingly similar to those of humans. A zoo to such creatures is probably the equivalent of a maximum-security prison to humans.

Photographed by famed cinematographer Dieter Plage, with silent skill and an awareness of the need for privacy for wild creatures, ''We Live With Elephants'' investigates a herd of wild elephants in Lake Manyara National Park in Tanzania. Dr. Douglas-Hamilton, his wife, and two children lived in the elephants' Great Rift Valley habitat for five years. They discovered that, during the dry season, there is a great need for the elephants to migrate to a nearby forest in order to find sustenance. However, the region between the park and the forest is now cultivated by African farmers who often shoot them as crop robbers.

In the course of tracking the 500 elephants, all of whom have been identified by ear, body, or tusk markings, the scientist and his family learned a great deal about their herd life - enough to convince them that there is much to learn from and admire in elephant customs. Some great moments in nature photography are permanently captured in this sensitive, understanding film.

Amid all of the pessimism about the future of this elephant herd, there is a note of optimism: the Tanzanian government is considering repurchasing the farmlands from the African farmers so that the herd can migrate to the forest freely.

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