Nova and Frontline: Asking the tough questions


November 20, 1990|By Michael Hill

Though their subjects seem further apart than the continent that separates their locales, cultural conflicts are at the heart of both Nova and Frontline tonight, PBS' classy Tuesday night combination that delivers its usual potent punch.

Nova, the science series that will be on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67, at 8 o'clock, asks "Can the Elephant Be Saved?" while Frontline, following at 9 o'clock, has Bill Moyers in Massachusetts as "Springfield Goes to War" over the Gulf crisis.

What makes both of these shows so compelling is that they offer no simple solutions or easy answers, instead asking tough questions, involving you in the issue, making you realize how difficult it is to come to grips with complex problems.

The controversy over the elephant is a perfect example. As all politically correct people know, conventional wisdom has condemned the sale of ivory, applauding the recent decision of a United Nations group to ban it internationally.

That ban was backed by Kenya and other east African nations, where poachers seeking the valuable tusks have decimated the elephant herds, one of the main attractions of the countries' tourist parks.

But the ban was opposed by the southern African countries of Zimbabwe and Botswana and this Nova, narrated by Paul Winfield, explains that this was because controlled ivory trading was part of the plan to preserve the elephants.

The idea behind Zimbabwe's program is to make the local villagers, those who feel the brunt of wildlife's destructive forces, share in the revenues these animals bring.

So, if tourists come to view the elephants, the villages get a large share of the money they spend. The same is true if a big game hunter comes to shoot one of the magnificent creatures. And, if the elephant herd is thinned, either because of overpopulation or the killing of a rogue animal, the villagers divide up the meat and the money raised by selling the skin and tusks.

When this works, the local population no longer sees wildlife as a threat to their crops and livestock, but as a lucrative source of income. They control the poachers because they want to make sure the animals stay around.

This is contrasted to Kenya's series of parks which have an unfortunate colonial legacy, set up by the white man to in no way benefit the native population. At one point 20 years ago, when a drought was killing an elephant herd, the starving neighbors of the park weren't allowed to butcher the dead animals for their meat.

Now, Richard Leakey, the white man who runs Kenya's park system, admits that should the ivory ban cause the elephants to come back to levels that the acreage of the parks can't sustain -- and these animals' appetites are voracious -- for public relations reasons, there is no way the herds could be thinned by killing. He's considering birth control.

And, indeed, one woman conservationist is quoted as saying that she would rather see the elephants disappear instead of surviving in herds subject to controlled culling.

A bit of hypocrisy lurks beneath the surface of the conservation demands -- many come from Americans and Europeans who, after their cultures have wiped out their continents' large mammals (seen any buffalo in Kansas lately? How about bears in France?) now call the Africans inhumane when they refuse to put their needs behind that of their continents' mammal population.

In "Springfield Goes to War," Moyers looks at the reactions to the American deployment in this Massachusetts town that's bordered by a large Air Force base. Only about a third of the program was available for preview -- the rest will consist of a town meeting Moyers hosted a couple of days ago.

The documentary about Springfield and the war shows people on all sides of the question. Many are confused and uncertain about the policies and possibilities for a bloody conflict.

Is Saddam Hussein a brutal dictator who must be stopped? Would his success encourage others of his ilk? Should Americans die to restore an emir to the throne of a ridiculously wealthy country? Is the Kuwaiti invasion really about restoring economic balance between the rich and poor Arab nations? Again, tough questions with tough answers.

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