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Startling visions of tigers and their land

Belinda Wright remembers the mystery and frustration of growing up in India and traveling frequently through tiger country. ``There was always a lot of evidence of tigers, but you never saw them,'' she recalled during a recent telephone interview.

Well, she's seen plenty of tigers now; and, thanks to the National Geographic Society, we can see them, too. As its 10th anniversary program, National Geographic Specials is presenting Land of the Tiger (PBS, Wednesday, Jan. 16, 8 to 9 p.m., check local listings), the fruits of 21/2 years of labor by Miss Wright and her husband, Stanley Breeden.

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The filming was done in a region of India where, the narrative tells us, ``tigers are making an astonishing comeback.'' In the national park at Kanha, poaching is almost totally under control, Wright says. Even though the pressure of encroaching civilization here and elsewhere in India is a continuing threat to the creature, Breeden and Wright found an abundance of tigers. After two or three months, they were able to establish themselves well enough as a friendly presence to capitalize on this largess.

``Land of the Tiger'' boasts several ``firsts'': the kill, mating, and suckling filmed in the wild. (A Survival Anglia film -- recently shown on PBS, and originally aired in 1977 on CBS -- contains footage that looks like a wild kill, but the cutting and film quality make that claim hard to support.) More important than any firsts, however, the National Geographic Special gives us a close vision of tigers and their land -- all the beauty that fills that wild country of extremes.

For an hour, the camera wanders beside tigers, sometimes within yards, moves along their sinewy flanks, capturing their terrible beauty and lingering on their flaming eyes. It is some of the most startling wildlife footage I have seen. Not only tigers but the multi-hued exotica of north-central India splay their colors across the screen.

``We've worked with tigers a long time,'' Belinda Wright explains. ``It's been something of an obsession . . . we know how to track them and how to film them. Also, we had the time. National Geographic told us, `OK, go ahead, even if it takes three years.' ''

It took almost that long to capture this stunning footage. It also took a good deal of ingenuity. In one of the two locations the team filmed, Kanha National Park, it did almost all of the filming from the backs of elephants.

``Tigers are used to elephants,'' Wright says. ``However, elephants can't stand still.'' So the crew built an 11-foot tripod with small spikes on the ends of the legs. When shooting was to start, the tripod was planted and, while Stan Breeden swayed with the motion of his elephant, the camera would remain steady. For a change of angles, he would hand the camera to his wife on a second elephant, and she would continue shooting.

This technique required endless patience, as did the whole process of following and waiting for the tigers.

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Patience is a quality Wright and Breeden may have picked up from the cats themselves. One tiger here, we're told, waits for upwards of nine hours for its prey. It hunts 20 times for every kill. And when you see it pick a target, you see six feet of power and energy concentrated with minute exactitude on a single object.

Twice the pair found themselves confronted with enraged tigers. They stood their ground both times, however, waving equipment and yelling, and the tigers backed off.

``Occasionally,'' Wright recalls, ``tigers would come and sit beside us. They often walked within seven or eight feet of us. They ignored us. We weren't a threat or a food source.''

While ``Land of the Tiger'' may concentrate too much on the killing business in the tiger's world, the lingering images one carries away are lyrical and full of lasting color:

The decayed ancient city in Ranthambhor, now the domain of monkeys and vultures.

Long, adoring close-ups of tigers' faces, as well as the footage of them nursing their young.

Kingfishers, owls, brain-fever birds, and the whole supporting cast of flora and fauna that makes this setting live up to Rudyard Kipling's evocations of this country.

If the intention here was to do in motion picture film what National Geographic magazine does in its pages, this episode certainly hits its mark. Breeden's script is a clear match for the footage at hand. And both he and his wife have a phenomenal rapport with the medium, the country, and the animal.

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