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TV's Fascination With the Elephant

I FELL in love,'' says British author-adventurer Mark Shand, standing next to a swaying gray giant. ``Her name was Tara, a beautiful female Asian elephant.''

His admission is made near the start of a haunting and powerful documentary that premieres March 9 (8-10 p.m.) on the Discovery Channel. ``Queen of the Elephants,'' it turns out, refers not to Tara but to her remarkable trainer, Parbati Barua. By the time the show is over, viewers will no doubt share both Shand's feeling about Asian elephants and his respect for Parbati. They may also emerge with renewed sense of what the finest kind of nature show can achieve on TV.

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This genre is a staple of the medium, of course, but only once in a while does a program achieve the mix of insight and imagery required to make it lurk in your mind's eye months and years later. Surprisingly, this has already happened a couple of times within the past year when the topic was elephants. Something almost subconscious in the animals' slow-motion movements makes a unique impression on screen, as if they were creatures from a dream world - fugitives from the Pleistocene Epoch who don't quite belong in our modern world.

Last March, the world-renowned elephant observer Cynthia Moss was featured in a revealing edition of the PBS series ``Nature.'' Called ``Echo of the Elephants,'' it was made in Kenya and pictured African elephants as living a soap-opera-like drama of joy, concern, and wistful memories. Earlier this month, a National Geographic special on PBS called ``Reflections on Elephants'' also documented the social life of its subjects, discovering evidence of compassion and self-help.

But ``Queen of the Elephants'' takes a different tack by focusing on the ``other'' elephant - the Asian variety - and on the high-stakes clash between them and the people of India, where stampeding herds trample crops, kill humans, and threaten villages. To explore the problem, Shand travels 300 miles on elephant-back, tracing the millenia-old migratory routes that elephants follow.

His guide is the truly impressive woman who gives the show its title. Parbati Barua has been called the foremost elephant trainer in India and the only woman in her profession. Men work under her direction to help manage their giant wards. Small of frame with a strong face, she is a like a goddess of Indian mythology who seems all but omniscient about the ways of elephants and of the ancient, mysterious lore of mahouts - or elephant drivers.

She's also sassy. ``Don't ask so many questions today,'' she tells Shand when his curiosity overcomes him as he begins his long trek with her. Later Parbati sits by the campfire wrapped in a mantle, upright and Buddha-like, answering Shand's inexorable queries. Their talk doesn't last long. The day starts at 4 a.m. the next day so the group can end their traveling by noon to avoid the day's worst heat. You won't soon forget those silhouettes - human and elephant - in the early light of camp.

Shand finds that learning to ride the elephant is like being put on a medieval rack, but he also discovers that ``the familiar rock-and-roll rhythm filled me with peace.'' Viewers may feel the peace too as they absorb the poetic photography with its lingering views of village and jungle and field. Cameras on elephant-back offer a wonderfully revealing perspective.

And you learn something about India's people. That's what distinguishes this elephant show from the two others mentioned. Shand makes no bones about the animals' often troubled relationship with humans. He refers to the ``innocent victims'' on both sides of the issue. He speaks with plantation owners who are waging what amounts to a war against rampaging herds. Desperate crowds are seen driving elephants from villages and farms, as cameras capture their majestic shapes fleeing into the night. ``They quite simply have no where to go,'' Shand explains.

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Some people are afraid the day will come when old TV programs are the wild elephant's only stamping grounds, so the recent attention they've been getting is encouraging. It goes a long way toward redressing some of television's shortcomings.

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