Picks and Pans Main: Video

updated 05/29/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/29/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

ARMCHAIR SAFARIS

Fifty years ago travelers went to see African wildlife with a sense of timelessness and unhurried innocence. George Plimpton, host of these two tapes, notes, "In the old days people...pitched their tents, and they headed into the bush on foot, seeing nothing but animals for days."

How times have changed. Some encroachments on wildlife were inevitable as Africa's human population grew. But some of the damage done to Africa's animal resources has been tragically shortsighted. In March, for instance, ivory poachers using semiautomatic weapons butchered nearly 50 elephants in Kenya. Several weeks later, suspected poachers ambushed two minibuses filled with tourists. Three people were injured, and Kenya's Director of Wildlife, Dr. Richard Leakey (son of paleontologists Louis and Mary Leakey), told the New York Times, "We are losing the elephant. There is no question that unless drastic action is taken, we will lose the tourists too."

These events only add impact to the spectacles that producer Megan Epler Wood includes on these wonderful 45-minute tapes. One part shows the "Serengeti migration" in Tanzania, an annual trek of hundreds of thousands of wildebeests, gazelles, zebras and other grazing animals—and accompanying predators. Each year around May, the start of the dry season, they head off in search of water and grassland. Wood's camera follows the herds northward hundreds of miles across Serengeti National Park, capturing moments touching (zebras nuzzling against a flaming sunset) and tragic (a lion pouncing on a newborn wildebeest, its umbilical cord still connected to its mother's womb).

In one powerful scene, herds of wildebeests arrive at the swift Mara River, which they must cross to reach their eventual destination. Chaotically, they mill around, finally plunging into the dangerous waters. Most of the beasts scramble, exhausted, onto the opposite bank, but the current catches a few of the weak and unlucky, sweeping them to their deaths.

Wood also examines Kenya's Amboseli National Park, spreading like a lush green fan at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro. Here, 12,000-lb. elephants frolic like puppies. It is a profoundly poignant scene, inasmuch as even Amboseli's borders can no longer protect what may be earth's last great concentration of African elephants.

North of the Amboseli is Kenya's Masai Mara Game Reserve, a prime site for lion-watching. Wood keys in on one pride, pointing out how females do the hunting—rather poorly, says Plimpton (Wood wrote the script), missing their prey five of six times. Still, watching a stalk and kill-even on film—is a fascinating experience.

The fourth segment was shot in Rwanda in the area where Dian Fossey studied the gentle mountain gorillas (and where she died). The majestic beasts are shown breakfasting on wild celery, then indulging in a favorite activity, sunbathing. Wood says poachers are less a threat now than farmers, who hack down undergrowth around the animals' territory.

This series touches the conscience as much as it satisfies the emotions and intellect. Plimpton suggests that those who want to help the nations of Africa preserve their irreplaceable animal resources visit the game reserves to prove that conservation pays. (Eco Ventures, $29.95 each; 800-862-8900)

WILD WILD WORLD OF ANIMALS

"Lions" and "Crocodiles" are two of the first tapes in a new series taken from a 1975 Time-Life Television program. The footage is full of close-ups, uncompromising (a lion cub is shown being abandoned to die) and sharply edited. You try doing a half hour on crocodiles that doesn't seem like 30 minutes of floating logs.

The narration is less consistent. "Lions" follows one Serengeti pride, concentrating on the lionesses' dominance. It's nowhere near the scope of the Disney classic The African Lion but includes some intriguing familial disputes—like an episode of a leonine soap opera. The narration, written by L. Richard Ellison and intoned by William Conrad, runs to the anthropomorphic: "Some lionesses go for years without burying any cubs."

Crocodiles are not so photogenic, and less overexposed, so the look at their mostly serene existence seems fresher. Trying to combat the crocs' bad press, writer Philip Kearney notes what devoted moms the females are. That won't make you root for the crocodile stalking an antelope in one scene, but you may understand these odd creatures better. (Vestron, $14.98 each; 800-523-5503)

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