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2 rain forests teach a nature lesson

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I had the pleasure of visiting two rain forests within three days. One is on a tropical island, the other in a major suburban shopping mall.

In the first, Puerto Rico's El Yunque, the nighttime positively rings with the sound of the Coqui. Coquis are named for the "co-kee" sound or mating call the males ring out while hunting for suitable females. They are tiny tree frogs that come in 16 varieties or subspecies ranging from less than an inch to two inches. They are tattooed in green, gray, brown and yellow.

Some have webbed toes, others do not. The males' calls have been recorded at 100 decibels. Their voices rock the island to sleep at night with lullabylike reverberations.

In the second — a restaurant, nature store, bar and grill, and "imaginarium"— the rain forest is self-contained and windowless, so you can't tell if it's day or night, and it doesn't seem to matter.

In El Yunque, the rainstorms sometimes gush for days on end. The air is so humid and aromatic it feels as if you're breathing pumpkin soup. The waterfalls course rapidly down moss-covered boulders and descend into inviting pools; clear, deep swimming holes.

In the restaurant version, the water comes in three forms. Huge circular fish tanks in the middle of the complex display colorful exotic fish, busily swimming round and round. Sprinklers covered by plastic plantlike vines regularly drip tiny drops into a carefully disguised recovery system cleverly adding a not-quite-realistic but dewy texture to the air. Then, of course, there are glasses of iced water readily available for customers.

In El Yunque, creatures are omnipresent, from the mongoose (non-native) to the Puerto Rican boa (native). There's the endangered Puerto Rican parrot. Some 45 members of this indigenous species still live in the wild. Decades ago thousands inhabited the island.

At one point, their numbers dwindled to 17. Thanks to U.S. Fish and Wildlife service recovery efforts, the population is once again on the incline. I was lucky enough to spot four of them (two pairs who mate for life) as they chattered while soaring in flight, then chirped and played as they sunned themselves on a naked branch.

In the shopping mall version, the only live animals are human. Lots of them, mainly parents with children having a delicious meal or investigating the piles of nature-oriented toys. The complex's designers creatively incorporate hints of exotic animals. Wooden bar stools are carved to look like giraffe, elephant and tiger legs. Stuffed parrots hang on perches, and toy chimpanzees stare out from a mixture of fake and real palm trees.

In El Yunque, there are an astonishing 240 native tree species, 23 of which are only found in this forest. Some tree names are so exotic, most Americans have never even heard of them: Tabonuco and Ausubo are the dominant trees, but there are plenty of Yagrumo, Guaraguao and Laurel Sabino.

There are 50 types of native orchids, 150 varieties of ferns and a plethora of "Bird of Paradise" flowering plants.

In the shopping mall rain forest, some real ferns and flowering plants sprout up between the fancy fakes. If you squint really hard and strain your imagination, you can almost trick yourself into believing you're not standing on a few thousand square feet of cement.

In El Yunque, the oldest forest reserve in the Western Hemisphere, you can easily lose yourself in 28,000 acres of federally protected land. It is so lush, King Alfonso XII of Spain set aside the original 12,000 cuerdas (one cuerda is nine-tenths of an acre) 125 years ago, to be protected for all times. The U.S. National Forest System took the land over in 1903 and has since added to the preserve.

The suburban version is a pretty cool fake, an adventure of its own. But as I watched the festive families and happy children, I couldn't help but wonder how many of them might never have the chance to experience the real thing and what a magical kingdom they are missing. The irony is, the more shopping malls we build, the tougher it is for natural treasures to survive.


Bonnie Erbe writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail bonnieerbe@CompuServe.com.