Documentary stalks the master predators: CBS's 'Lions of Etosha'

The African lion is not only the king of the beasts, it is ''the most efficient search-and-destroy weapon system in the world.'' That's what James Earl Jones, a lion of a man himself, says as narrator of The Lions of Etosha: King of the Beasts (CBS, Wednesday, June 5, 8-9 p.m).

Why an efficient ''search-and-destroy weapon system''?

Well, according to Jones, in this Colin Willcock-scripted Survival Anglia documentary, the lion has movable ears, a sensitive nose, sharp teeth, and a sandpaper tongue that can scrape meat off bones. And his golden color allows him to fade unnoticed by his prey into the African grass.

Filmmakers Des and Jen Bartlett spent close to five years stalking a single pride of lions in Namibia's Etosha National Park, where around 500 lions roam free and protected. The Bartletts, a husband-and-wife team of wildlife photographers, built a blind of steel plates and made it look like a termite mound. Then they pro-ceeded to photograph lions, elephants, and anything else that came into range. But they also tracked their special pride of lions to record the rivalries, loyalties, and complex animal relationships.

Some viewers may be upset by some of the gruesome shots of lions killing zebras and antelopes and other creatures - but keep in mind that the killing is all part of the natural scheme of things that keeps the national park in ecological balance. Some of the most ominously frightening wildlife scenes you may ever see are the segments that record the lions' zebra hunt, a pride of lions silently stalking a herd of frightened, suspicious zebras. Five minutes after the kill there is only a stain on the ground where a fallen zebra had lain.

In addition to the lion material, there are some glorious filler items - elephants at play, and behind-the-scenes shots of the Bartletts setting up their photographic equipment. And to top off the collection of unnerving and varied footage, there is a climactic sequence of a young male lion learning to make his first kill.

In addition to astounding film footage, the film manages to include some fascinating factual material. For instance, adult lions can eat as much as 100 pounds of meat at one session, and during the mating season, a pair of lions may mate as often as once every 15 minutes for a period of three days.

''The Lions of Etosha'' is not a tight, controlled film - it meanders almost as freely as the wildlife it records. And it is very eager to make one main point - never forget that the African lion is an endangered species. When and if the last wild lion is lost, ''we will have lost something precious, beyond price.''

The same might also be said for wildlife documentaries of the caliber of this Bartlett film.

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