NEW YORK -- Suddenly the sky vanishes behind a mosaic of green leaves, and the hot summer air becomes lush and heavy, as though pregnant with moisture. Mist, rising from a nearby waterfall, swirls by in curly ribbons. Go ahead. Follow the meandering mud path, but step carefully: Just beyond your left foot lies a clump of elephant dung. A few feet away, a hoof mark, a delicate quarter-moon, has been etched in the hard-packed dirt.
You might think you are on safari in the rain forests of Africa, but you are not. Instead you are entering the Congo Gorilla Forest at the Bronx Zoo, not far from Yankee Stadium.
Billed as a first-of-its-kind participatory exhibit, the gorilla forest, which opened in June, is designed to increase public awareness of conservation efforts -- and to catalyze support for research and preservation programs in the African Congo.
It is zoo as theater, a blend of natural and make-believe.
In this rain forest, the mulberrys, magnolias and oaks are real, but the liani vines and uacapa trees are fashioned from epoxy and rubber. Most of the animals -- the gorillas, colobus monkeys, okapis, African pygmy geese -- are real.
But the mist and the squawks, hoots and tweets of the bull bulls, hornbills and cuckoos are piped in.
One trompe l'oeil viper is so convincing that it startled a mother mandrill de Brazza's monkey, who stood between it and her baby and adopted a threatening pose.
"We hope people who come here will have a really good time. We also hope they will learn how we as an organization do science and research to figure out how to protect these animals," says Lee Ehmke, associate director of exhibitions.
The Congo Basin (the real one in Africa) is about the size of Western Europe. In the past decade, it has come under constant assault from civil unrest, loggers and commercial hunters. Each year, about 37,000 square miles of forest -- an area about six times the size of Connecticut -- are destroyed by logging. And 1 million tons of bush meat are taken annually from the jungle.
"It is hard to champion animal rights in the midst of human atrocities," admits Colleen McCann, associate curator of primates. "People need the resources of the land, but so do the animals have needs. We try to speak for the animals."
The Bronx Zoo, which is run by the Wildlife Conservation Society, is charging a $3 fee to enter the gorilla rain forest in addition to its $7.75 general admission price. The participatory part of the exhibit comes when zoo-goers are invited to vote on which conservation effort they'd like to support: The $3 they paid will be used to save elephants, gorillas or okapis.
The $43 million rain forest is home to 22 Western lowland gorillas and a multitude of other creatures, from the Wolf's monkey to the ornate Nile monitor. At every opportunity, the 6.5-acre exhibit is linked to research being conducted by the 104-year-old Wildlife Conservation Society.
For example, the society conducts field studies in Africa on all three gorilla subspecies: mountain gorillas, Grauer's gorillas and western lowland gorillas. Among other projects, it helped create a 1 million-acre protected rain forest in central Africa in which live forest elephants, chimpanzees, western lowland gorillas, leopards and bongos.
By making visitors feel as though they have stepped out of the asphalt jungle and into a real-life jungle, the Bronx Zoo hopes to make lessons about conservation seem like entertainment.
Zoos nationwide increasingly are weaving lessons and fun together in experiential exhibitions like the gorilla rain forest, says Roger Birkel, executive director of the Baltimore Zoo.
"I call it `storytelling,' " he says. "Too often in the past, the animal was presented as an object with a label attached to it. I think we all understand that the richer the context the animal is placed in, the more exciting it is and the greater the opportunity to teach and to connect the visitor with wildlife."
Along the rain forest trail, "clues" have been planted to encourage visitors to think like field scientists. Alert passers-by will spot reddish, pyramid-shaped termite hills or leopard scat complete with the skeletal remnants of the big cat's last snack.
"Hey look!" one little boy says. "A giant snail."
"I don't think it's real snail," his mother answers. "No, it's not moving. But be careful, that bee is real for sure."
To the left of the trail, colubus monkeys dangle from tree branches or munch on leaves. Farther along, okapi, gentle creatures that resemble deer wearing black-and-white lederhosen, graze on tree limbs.
The animals' open-air habitats are designed to seem as though the rain forest extends indefinitely: It is hard to tell where a cage begins or ends. Instead of the traditional heavy bars and boxy environments, the animals are kept behind steel-mesh fencing that disappears when viewed against the backdrop of foliage.