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PBS's Truthful Eye On Elephant Life

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CYNTHIA MOSS, world-renowned observer of elephant behavior, has no qualms about calling the lives of elephants "a soap opera." She likens being in the middle of a herd to joining a big family reunion. She says elephants experience joy, concern, and sometimes a wistful memory of recent ancestors.

Such anthropomorphic notions might cause shudders if they didn't come from a woman who is founder and director of the Amboseli Elephant Research Project and a Kenya senior associate of the African Wildlife Foundation. But once you've seen an upcoming PBS documentary about her work, you'll understand perfectly. You may even add a few metaphors of your own. "Echo of the Elephants" offers a media model of how documentary rigor can coexist with poetic license. This impressive film - an edition of the "Natur e" series airing Sunday, March 14 (8-9:30 p.m., check local listings) - pulls you into a world where life, death, recovery, and mutual support form a social history that has an undeniable story line.

Moss lives in that world: taking notes, teaching, and - for 18 months in 1990 and 1992 - working on this program. When I spoke with her by phone while she was in New York City the other day, I asked if a major media project like this - however carefully controlled - might not have altered the very thing the film was designed to capture: the elephants' natural behavior.

"We're just flies on the walls," she answered. "It very rarely affects them. Some of the older calves come and push on the car and lean on it and tusk it gently. That's the only time they really interact with us."

The rest of the time the elephants are minding their own business, in ways that call for high intelligence and what appears to be community spirit. The program focuses on a matriarch, the Echo of the title, and her just-born calf Eli, who cannot walk - a potentially fatal condition. In a heartening display of cooperative effort, mother and sister try to help. The sister walks away at times in an effort to motivate Eli to rise and follow. When he does get up, it is an exhilarating moment.

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