Visually rewarding look at China's wildlife - and threats it faces

Spirit of Adventure: Uncovering China's Hidden Wildlife ABC, Sunday, 5-6 p.m. Documentary hosted by Jim Fowler. There's nothing unusual about nature documentaries these days - even good ones. But this program offers something special: a visually rewarding look at a lesser-known side of China - not teeming masses but a fascinating array of species still found in both frontier and developed areas.

Photo teams were allowed to work in that country for about a year, searching out wildlife and documenting government efforts to preserve threatened species. The result is rare and often touching footage of everything from white dolphins to the Asian tiger. Few scenes offer electrifying action shots, but they form a comprehensive and nicely edited film tour that is informative without being didactic.

At its best the footage suggests the individuality and preciousness of China's animals and links them to the country's past through art and history. In close-up we see the Chinese alligator - an emblem, the show suggests, of the general decline of wildlife populations around the world - as it enters its multichambered den. And we watch alligator eggs hatch and see the small creatures struggle toward water. On the Yangtze River delta there is a striking shot of fishermen hauling in a giant pregnant sturgeon, which yields pounds of caviar.

During its year, the crew moved throughout the vast country, filming white crane, black bear, bounding sables, and the ``small'' Chinese elephant in its dwindling rain-forest habitat. The most endearing moment may be the panda mother and her newborn cub, but the most striking moments are of the Asian tiger - shown first in a sample of Chinese art - as it stalks a prey. The show has been flowing with engaging speed through its material, but at this point it knows enough to take the time to watch the tiger stand and then, finally, make the kill.

All through the narration you can sense the program's diplomatic policy: Be nice to your hosts. This filming was apparently quite a coup, and the script makes reference to ``careful management of the Chinese'' and notes that ``Chinese [conservation] law is an example to the world.''

Much of this seems justified, as we see all kinds of wildlife management programs and other species-saving efforts. The show readily acknowledges the dilemma posed by a country like China: The interests of its huge population tend to conflict with the needs of threatened species. As one question from the show puts it: ``Do we want people, or do we want the animals?'' Lots of things are being done, according to this program, but answering that question demands a very tough call.

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