One of the world's most lovable creatures is also one of the world's most vulnerable to extinction. Save the Panda (PBS, Wednesday, 8-9 p.m.; local air times vary - check listings for premiere and repeats) explores the hidden world of the panda and the current fight for its survival. The National Geographic Special, third in this year's series, tracks the giant pandas to their isolated lair in China and then to the various zoos in which there is a desperate attempt to breed them to assure the survival of the species.
Produced with wide-ranging skill by Miriam Birch, the story of the world's ''pandemania '' is a fascinating journey into zoological adventure, perhaps the ultimate adventure story, since the purpose is not merely entertainment. And it proves to be a fascinating TV show as well, with lessons to be learned.
So I arranged to talk to Russell Train, president of the World Wildlife Fund - US, which was involved in the preparation of the special.
''I think the special has an important message about the commitment human society must have to safeguard endangered species around the world,'' he said. ''We tend to be very standoffish about it. But there is a strong ethical requirement to worry about it, to do something about the fate of all these other creatures with which we share the earth.''
What can the average person do to save the panda?
''Pandas are far-distant creatures for most of us. So there isn't anything direct for the average person to do in terms of getting out and helping preserve their natural habitat in China. On the other hand, the panda has become a very special symbol of endangered wildlife around the world with high recognition value - a very attractive symbol, because they are exceedingly well known and universally loved. I know it sounds self-serving, but the fact is that people can support an organization like ours, which is, in fact, directly involved in the save-the-panda campaign. In a broader sense, too, people can encourage support for wildlife conservation on the US government level by writing to their congressmen.
''We are involved in about 130 projects. But the most-endangered species are the panda, the African rhinoceros, and the blue whale. There are hundreds of endangered birds as well - the Caifornia condor in particular.''
I cringed at some of the explicit clinical sequences in the film in which scientists attempt to propogate the panda in captivity. How does Mr. Train feel about the public indignities that the pandas in the film are subjected to in the course of the attempts at artificial insemination?
''I admit I, too, blanched a bit at the indignity,'' he admitted. ''But when you weigh the potential fate of the species against the temporary indignity imposed on an individual panda, you just have to give the nod to the attempt to preserve the species.''