EMERGENCY! Earth failing fast. Help needed now.
This alert is sounded by "Biodiversity 911," a traveling exhibit at the National Geographic Society's Explorers Hall through March 15. Designed by the World Wildlife Fund, the interactive exhibit lets kids play -- and plan how best to save the planet.
At the entrance, a 12-minute film blends whimsy with warning. In documentary style, the camera zooms in on six clay-animated figures in a hospital emergency room. Branche du Bois, a tulip poplar, suffers from deforestation. Two wheelchair-bound pink shrimp, Muffy and Marcy, complain of aggressive fishing practices while a beluga whale named Babs rails against toxic chemicals. Bernie Kowalski, a dirt mound, is eroding rapidly. The doctors try their best . . . but the critters seem doomed. Is there nothing that can be done?
After the movie, youngsters can visit Branche, Babs, Bernie and other characters at six hands-on stations. Here kids learn about the interconnectedness of living things and the way humans have severely damaged the fragile web of life. And they learn how to recycle, consume mindfully and dispose of carefully to help heal the planet.
On the Wednesday I visited, youngsters were crawling through a colorful coral reef and scrolling down a computerized rain-forest tree to discover the many life forms harbored in both places. The model of a huge cut-away dirt mound revealed an intricate system of roots and the small mammals, worms and insects that dwell underground. My 4-year-old daughter, Christy, enjoyed squeezing a tube of decomposing leaves to release the rich scent of healthy soil.
Especially popular was the station on wildlife trade. Youngsters peeked into suitcases at confiscated items, including an ornately carved elephant tusk and tortoiseshell. They gently stroked the bronze paw prints of animals pushed to the brink of extinction by overhunting. At a nearby resource area, tots danced with animal puppets and sang to a music video by environmental entertainer Billy B.
One compelling kiosk focuses on the beauty of biodiversity. Wild creatures leap, loll, slither and swim in "Anima Mundi," a video with music by composer Philip Glass. As they listen and watch, children and adults can pen their environmental concerns and solutions on note cards. Posted on the kiosk board, these cards with drawings and advice essentially caution us to "think globally and act locally."
" 'Biodiversity 911' is a personal call to action, put into a child's perspective," says Susan Norton, director of Explorers Hall. "We hope everyone will see how urgent it is to make changes. Even the smallest act can make a difference."
The exhibit exits directly into "Jungles," a display of 43 stunning photographs by naturalist Frans Lanting. For 20 years, Lanting has trained his lens on some of the world's lushest flora and most intriguing fauna. Gazing at the red-eyed tree frog, jaguar and curling fern pictured here brings home this message: Protect their habitat -- before it's too late.
BIODIVERSITY 911 -- Through March 15 at the National Geographic Society's Explorers Hall, 17th and M streets NW (Metro: Farragut North). 202-857-7588. www.nationalgeographic.com/explorer/index.html. Open Monday through Saturday from 9 to 5; Sundays from 10 to 5. Closed Dec. 25. Free. "Jungles: Photographs of Frans Lanting" is on view through Feb. 9. For information on programs and lectures, call 202-857-7700. Special "Passport Fridays" programs related to these exhibits are offered every Friday, late mornings and early afternoons. Call or check the Web site for specific times.