ZOO TALES: New Africa Experience Awaits Zoo Visitors
More than three years ago the North Carolina Zoo announced a mammoth undertaking, one that may well serve as the prototype for the care and management of captive elephants and rhinos in American zoos.
On Saturday, April 5, that undertaking came to fruition as the zoo's newest exhibit, called the Watani Grasslands Reserve, opened to the public.
The Reserve is an $8.5 million remolding, expansion and improvement project for the zoo's African elephant and southern white rhinoceros habitats and holding facilities, along with changes to the adjoining African Plains exhibit for antelope.
The former 3.5-acre elephant and rhinoceros exhibits have been combined to create a single, seven-acre habitat just for elephants. A second large bathing pool has been added to the new elephant exhibit along with lots of shade and abundant grass and other vegetation.
Meanwhile, the rhinos will be relocated to the 37-acre African Plains habitat to share that space with 10 species of antelope. New and expanded educational graphics and interpretive information, along with total immersion viewing areas, will also improve the elephant and rhino viewing experience for zoo visitors.
A 130-foot walkway into the Plains habitat immerses visitors into the exhibit and affords special views. Visitors can find themselves surrounded on both sides by elephants, rhinos and antelope. They may see an elephant scratching itself against a gnarled rubbing tree or look in another direction and see kudu shading themselves under acacias or a rhino wallowing in mud to cool itself.
The project also includes the construction of a new elephant barn -- a $2.5 million, state-of-the-art facility complete with calving rooms, heated floors, individual stalls and a large community room. The barn that currently houses both elephants and rhinos has been renovated to accommodate just the rhino herd.
These improvements will enable the zoo to increase its current collection of seven elephants and nine rhinos to as many as 10 animals of each species. This increase in numbers of two of the zoo's most popular animals will be a must-see for visitors, but more importantly, it will dramatically improve the N.C. Zoo's ability to breed both species, placing the N.C. Zoo at the forefront of the effort to sustain a viable captive population of both species as well as contributing to the scientific knowledge needed to conserve populations in the wild.
The renovation and expansion of the zoo's elephant and rhino facilities could not have come at a better time. Over the past two to three years, an ongoing debate over the captive care and management of elephants among animal rights organizations and member institutions of the national Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) has become a topic for national media coverage and a concern within the zoo community.
The Reserve project will place the N.C. Zoo far ahead of current AZA standards for elephants. The size of the new exhibit, along with specially designed facilities both inside the habitat and in the off-exhibit holding areas, will provide the elephants with plenty of activities, both physical and mental, to assure their well-being.
Additionally, state-of-the-art technology will enable keepers not only to provide the animals with the best veterinary care and husbandry available, but also will help the staff gain knowledge about the animals that can contribute to improved breeding, nutrition and physical well-being. Such information can potentially improve the conservation of both the captive and wild elephant populations.
In the final analysis, however, it is the educational impact of elephants on zoo visitors that may hold the key to the long-term survival of the species. Despite rapid improvements and growth in technologies, nothing can replace the personal experience of seeing a real 5-ton elephant. These zoo elephants serve as ambassadors for their wild counterparts, helping to inform the public about the need to conserve both elephants and their wild habitats.
That personal experience is what prompts the public to continue to care about conservation. And in the final analysis, that could be the largest payoff for the zoo's investment.
Tom Gillespie works for the zoo's public affairs office.
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