In 2014, the Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium in Omaha, Nebraska was rated as the world’s best zoo by TripAdvisor. Now, they are busy at work in adding to their zoo offerings with the $73 million expansion project, African Grasslands.
Set to open in two phases, African Grasslands is the largest expansion project in the zoo’s history. The first phase is expected to be completely open in spring 2016, as some elements of this phase are already complete. The African Lodge was among the first components of the expansion to open to the public, and it features the Tusker Grill restaurant, which serves both African and American cuisine, as well as a train station, space for private events, and overnight camping.
The two largest buildings of the project, the Giraffe and Hoofstock Holding Building and the Elephant Family Quarters, are nearly complete. The Giraffe and Hoofstock Holding Building contains 10,960 square feet to house giraffes and impala while they are off-exhibit. Special equipment for veterinary treatment has been installed in the building to allow for facilitated access to the large giraffes. This holding building will connect to a large savannah habitat that will include about 9 giraffes, impala, white rhinos, ostriches, white storks, and spur-winged geese. A feeding station for the giraffes will also be built.
The Elephant Family Quarters building, which comprises $15 million of the $73 million expansion, contains over 29,000 square feet of habitat space for the zoo’s herd of African elephants. This building will allow zoo visitors to view elephants year-round in what is the largest elephant quarters in the country. The elephant barn opens into an elephants-only exhibit that is further linked to a larger mixed-species savannah habitat by means of a bridge over the train tracks. The main elephant habitat will also display impala and plains zebra, and special features of the elephant exhibit will include a wading pool, a mud bath, a sand pit, and a training demonstration area for the elephants with spectator seating. In total, the elephant exhibit complex will be 4 acres in size.
The elephants that the zoo hopes to have living in the Elephant Family Quarters would come from the Big Game Parks Trust in Swaziland. The Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium has partnered with the Dallas Zoo and the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kansas to import the elephants as part of an initiative that the three zoos have organized called “Room for Rhinos.” In Swaziland, these elephants are crowding out the endangered black rhino, which is struggling to make a comeback because the elephants are consuming the vegetation faster than it can regrow and be sustained. Therefore, the park managers in Swaziland needed to either cull the elephants or find them new homes. The permit filed by the zoos with US Fish and Wildlife Services, if approved, would allow the import of 18 elephants from Swaziland, and 6 elephants (one male and five females) would go to each zoo. As part of the “Room for Rhinos” initiative, the zoos collectively have pledged to donate $1 million to black rhino conservation. The zoos also hope to maintain genetic diversity in their elephant population by working together in a cooperative breeding program that includes all 18 elephants.