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Simulated savannah to house elephant study at Birmingham Zoo
Posted by William Thornton -- Birmingham News July 27, 2009 6:00 AM
Categories: Must See


Birmingham Zoo CEO Bill Foster shows the zoo's giraffes a model of the Trails of Africa addition.The Birmingham Zoo will break ground Wednesday on a $12.5 million Trails of Africa exhibit, a simulated savannah setting which will serve as home to what zoo officials are calling a one-of-a-kind elephant exhibit.
The project, expected to take 12 to 18 months, will add 14 acres to the zoo with possibilities for night simulated safaris and interactive exhibits.

The planned elephant exhibit will allow the zoo to become a center of study for male elephants, zoo CEO Bill Foster said.


"We're biting off a really big bite to focus on males. We're going to be the first zoo to try this," Foster said.

Trails of Africa will be the first addition to the zoo since it finished the Children's Zoo wing in 2005. Plans were announced in 2007, but construction is moving ahead after the city of Birmingham committed $1.5 million a year for the next decade to the zoo. That will help pay for the African exhibit as well as maintaining zoo operations. The zoo raised half of the cost for Trails through private donors.

The zoo has not yet secured a contractor, but Foster said work should begin in October. The zoo originally planned a more elaborate exhibit two years ago, but Foster said the facilities design allows the zoo to "grow" into it.

For the groundbreaking event Wednesday, zoo officials have planned various African touches, such as safari guides, African music and exhibits, and a video presentation on what the exhibit will look like, said Katrina Cade, the zoo's vice president of marketing. The event kicks off at 10 a.m.

Trails of Africa will allow elephants, giraffes, zebras, hippos and ostriches to roam around in areas similar to their native habitat. What zoo officials envision for the exhibit is a combination of interactive exhibits to get visitors closer to the animals, and a familiar environment for the animals to interact with each other.

Also included in the plans is the "Boma Yard," an area where zoo visitors can interact with the animals as they learn more about them. There will also be a Safari Cafe, restrooms and other amenities. In the future, the zoo will offer nighttime exhibits with "enhanced moonlight" to allow visitors to see animals not having to cope with daytime heat.

"It will take a little bit of time to get it all assembled," Foster said. "It won't all come together opening day. But it will be exciting, because it's a new way of exhibiting animals in a natural setting."

'Bachelor herds'

The centerpiece of the exhibit will be elephants, which the zoo has been without for two years. Elephants, Foster explained, travel in largely female-dominated herds. Young bull male elephants travel in smaller "bachelor herds" that roam free. While scientists know a great deal about the female herds, they are only now focusing on male groups. Most zoos have female herds, he said.

It will also allow zoologists to study, for example, how elephants communicate with each other. Scientists believe elephants use low frequency vibrations to send messages to assemble herds, disperse, or direct other elephants to travel to specific areas. If scientists can gain a better understanding of how elephants communicate, they might be able to direct elephants away from populated areas, he said.

"Elephants are in peril," Foster said. "What we will be doing here will impact how elephants are understood throughout the world."

The zoo has already identified three male elephants at zoos in Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, and Disney's Animal Kingdom in Florida for relocation to Birmingham. As construction on the exhibit progresses, the zoo could begin transporting animals within the next year. Foster said the elephants may be shipped to a different site to become familiar with each other before they arrive in Birmingham.
 

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Hmm, sounds pretty extensive and also remarkably similar to the all of the recent/current projects going on at the Oklahoma City Zoo.
 
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