Jungles: an endangered species; Jungles, edited by Edward S. Ayensu. New York: Crown Publishers Inc. $35.

Even a little reading about tropical rain forests, more commonly known as jungles, can serve as a strong antidote to solipsism, anthropocentrism, and temperate-zone chauvinism: Most of the life on this planet, after all, is concentrated within those three great areas of unimaginably rich biotic interaction -- the jungles of Amazonia, West Africa, and the Malay archipelago -- into which few of us will ever set foot.

Jungle accounts for only one-twelfth of the earth's land surface, yet more than half the earth's total of plant and animal species live there; of insects alone, 700,000 species; of mosquitoes, close to 2,000 species; not to mention snakes that glide through the air like flying squirrels, trees that bleed red when blazed, and orchids in shapes that tax credulity. If jungles didn't exist, it would take Federico Fellini to invent them.

And "Jungles," this handsome and encyclopedic result of collaboration among a half dozen scientists, two good artists, and a sensible designer, does justice to both the diversity and the intricate balance of its subject. "Jungles" is one of those rarities, a large-format book full of striking illustrations and photographs that actually deserves to be picked up off the coffee table and read ,m front to back.

It is packed with astounding particularities -- like "Rafflesia arnoldii," an underground parasitic plant that bursts through the forest floor with the world's largest flower, three feet across and attracting flies for its own pollination by a smell resembling rotting meat -- but the book also offers a matrix of basic ecological theory, from soil chemistry and water movement to the more elaborate symbioses, that allows the nonscientific reader to begin understanding not just what a rain forest looks like but how it works.

More important still, "Jungles" sounds the alarm, in moderate tone but unequivocally, about what is befalling the rain forests: They are being cut down for timber and cleared for agriculture at a disastrous rate. By some estimates, 50 acres of tropical forest are now destroyed every minute,m and at that pace it will all be gone in a generation. With it will necessarily go to extinction many thousands of tropical plant and animal species.

That needn't happen -- it mustn't (for all our sakes) be allowed to happen -- and Edward S. Ayensu and his colleagues are telling us why. At $35 this book, believe it or not, is cheap.

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