The National Audubon Society's first first fictional movie (Monday at 8 on TNT) is in large part a mystery:

Who's behind the murder of an American photographer in Kenya doing research for a novelist?

Not who actually killed her and why they did it. That, we know. Those questions were answered when her film was developed, showing the ivory poachers as they machine-gunned the elephants and used chain-saws to dig the tusks out of their skulls.

What we want to know is: Who are the masters of the game, the ones whose hands are free of blood, but heavy with guilt and greed?

Leave it to James Earl Jones to find out.

Jones is one of three big-name stars in "The Last Elephant." The others are John Lithgow and Isabella Rossellini. A formidable trio for Audubon's first step out beyond conservation documentaries.

In Roger DiSilvestro's story, Lithgow plays Robert Carter, an alcoholic novelist, afraid to fly, who nevertheless must go to Kenya to find out what happened to Liz Page, his researcher/photographer; Jones is Nkuru, the Nairobi police inspector who sets up a sting; and Rossellini is Dr. Maria DiConti, a scientist/veterinarian working from a station in the bush country.

"We had a lot of last-minute work on the script," said director Joseph Sargent. "John and Isabella were so contributive. I've never worked with such hardworking actors with that kind of in-put. John, aside from being such a fine, sensitive actor, is also a gifted writer of sorts. We would have scenes that just didn't work and he'd help work them out.

"The thing about film, as opposed to just about any other venue of writing, is that you are dealing with the living, breathing actors as well as the needs of the characters. You don't always see that in the typewriter.

"Nor do we all, smartasses that we are, foresee what can happen when you're out in the bush of Kenya and the streets of Nairobi. We found such rapport, such a collaborative effort. We were all drawn to the project, because of that shared excitement -- going to Africa and, of course, doing something."

"Doing something" means joining Audubon's effort to help stanch the ivory trade so that elephants will not be slaughtered for their tusks. To do that, the market for ivory -- carvings, ivory jewelry, ivory piano keys -- must dry up. At the film's conclusion, Rossellini will make an appeal to viewers to call a toll-free number for information on how to fight poaching. That, of course, is Audubon's mission.

Sargent's mission was to complete the film, which was released theatrically in Europe as "The Ivory Hunters," in 21 days. When they got started, the movie had no name at all. "The Ivory Hunters" served as the working title, but could have been confused with a 1951 British film, "Ivory Hunter." Audubon Productions' president Christopher N. Palmer said the titles "White Gold" and "Blood Gold" were considered.

"James Earl Jones liked 'Ivory,'" said Palmer, "but Joe Sargent didn't." Palmer said the American title may not have been the best choice, in retrospect, implying as it does that the film is about the last elephant in the world.

"We rewrote a lot of the action for Jomo, the lead Masai character, who's also a bush pilot, and reshaped things from what we learned," he said.

Tall, striking Tony Todd plays Jomo, who in one memorable scene brings his small aircraft alongside his native village to meet his father, the chieftain, and drop off his young son before continuing to search for poachers over the safe-havens of Somalia and Burundi.

The chieftain explains to Carter that there was a time when the ferocious Masai hunted elephants because the animals trampled their grazing lands and overturned their villages. Now, however, the Masai consider the elephant as a neighbor in need of protection.

"If man allows the elephant to die, man's spirit will die of loneliness," explains Jomo's son, delivering the film's message.

(He also gets one of the movie's other best lines: In justifying his own quiet demeanor, he tells writer Carter, who has a tendency to babble: "You can never learn something you don't know when your mouth is still full of your own words.")

"Jones' part started out to be almost negligible," said Sargent. "But there were certain elements in the script that weren't coming together properly. The more that element developed, the more important became the man who's going to track down the mystery."

That man, of course, is barrel-chested, deep-voiced Police Inspector Nkuru. It's a part that suits Jones perfectly. A patient man with much presence, he suspects what's going on with the ivory syndicate, in violation of Kenyan law, and enlists Carter to help entrap the masterminds.

Rossellini, whose face has graced hundreds of fashion magazine covers and advertisements, first appears delightfully splattered with mud from a small elephant she's trying to attend. As Dr. Maria DiConti, she is in love with her work, both at her bush camp and at fundraisers in Nairobi, and increasingly fond of Carter. What she doesn't suspect is that among the staffers at her camp is one who is a spy for the ivory hunters.

Despite the carnage to come, the movie begins peacefully enough with stunning scenes of what Sargent calls "the pre-sunrise look," accompanied by indigenous Masai music and other folk sounds of Kenya enhanced by musical director Charles Bernstein, who, Sargent said, had once done a thesis on African music.

"It was all one gigantic safari," recalled Sargent. "We would see all the wildlife. We would leave very early on some mornings when it was still dark out, the pre-sunrise look, just the bare light in the sky and suddenly there's the silhouettes of five or six giraffes. Our headlights would pick them up, and I was able to catch that on my videocamera. Now, I won't go anywhere without it."

"The Last Elephant" will have repeat telecasts Monday at 10 p.m., midnight and 2 a.m.; at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Tuesday; Saturday at 10 p.m., and next Sunday at 4 p.m.

For Lithgow, 44, holder of both Tony and Emmy awards, the five days in Kenya last January and February gave him his first -- and unexpected -- trip to Africa.

"Kenya was just enthralling," he said. "I'd just sort of resigned myself to missing Africa. It never seemed like a possibility. I came back with a funny combination of a sort of insight into the country and a strange sort of oblivion. When I was there, Nelson Mandela was released. But the first I heard about it was on the street outside my hotel, when the people were shouting in the streets. You don't realize how much you tend to depend on television and newspapers. You feel incredibly privileged."

The cast stayed at the New Stanley Hotel in Nairobi and the film was made largely on Adnan Kashoggi's 100,000-plus acre game preserve about 120 miles northwest of Nairobi, said Sargent.

But when the cast and crew ventured out into the bush, Sargent said, there were dangers.

"It gets very seductive when you're on location. You feel relaxed and secure. No one ever thinks there's any danger involved, when in fact a preserve means preserving the natural conditions -- which means hungry animals are going to eat what they're going to eat. If a human gets into that food chain and becomes a link ... well, we were reminded that we weren't in Central Park. The lulling sense is further exacerbated by the fact that you're in a Land Rover. The animals view it as neutral, because they don't like the taste of oil and can't eat the vehicle, so you think nothing of driving along and there's a lion walking along."

Even in the Kashoggi game preserve, there were dangers to animals, including to a young elephant named Tootsie imported from Zimbabwe to be the animal star of the film.

"She had to be heavily protected," said Sargent. "There was an armed guard on her all the time. She wouldn't know how to behave in the wild -- she's still a baby, spoiled and babied, and that rubs the preservationists the wrong way.

"The ladies who run the orphanages for animals take them in and feed them. In the early stages of preparation, when we didn't know what positions were drawn, naturally we went to them for a baby elephant. No way will they have anything to do with film companies and circuses. No way would the animals be required to do any stunts, take any direction."

In the film, there is a scene in which Rossellini, as the veterinarian, tends to an injured elephant. The elephant must be tranquilized, which in fact it was.

"That was okayed," said Sargent. "Our vet and the second unit were sent out with {producer} Robert Halmi, and Bob would go out with John and Isabella and the second unit cameramen and look for a herd -- the herd would be spotted from the air -- and tranquilize one of the elephants. Then they would wait while the elephant would thrash about and photograph that. I had prerehearsed the actors, since the elephant was only given a mild sedative.

"There was a big element of danger there, too: Isabella had to go right in there as it was waking up. She was so wonderful and so dedicated herself as a preservationist. But in fact, the Vic Morrow thing haunts us."

Sargent referred to the crash of a helicopter during the filming of the movie "Twilight Zone" in July 1982, which killed three people including actor Vic Morrow.

"The Last Elephant" ends much like a western, with a confrontation between good guys -- the novelist and the scientist, trying to warn the elephants to head away from the water hole -- and the bad guys, machine-gun bearing poachers who intend to slaughter the animals there.

"The second unit went out on several hunting trips because we needed a lot of tie-ups with charging elephants, an enormous herd of hundreds of elephants," said Sargent. "Isabella and John had to rush at the elephants to warn them to get away from danger. They took a lot of chances. Every once in a while a mother got very incensed that her baby might be jeopardized and would try to protect her baby. That was a flash point in high blood pressure for both John and me."

Lithgow may have been worried then, but he didn't mention it in retrospect.

"It's a film," he said, "that just got better and better as we worked on it."