Supervisor Shauna Cannon feeds Malaika in the new 10-acre African Savanna exhibit at the Fort Worth Zoo. The exhibit, the first of four phases of the Wilder Vision fundraising program to expand animal habitats, features a mixed-species space, giraffe feeding, underwater hippo viewing, southern black rhinos and an exotic bird aviary

Supervisor Shauna Cannon feeds Malaika in the new 10-acre African Savanna exhibit at the Fort Worth Zoo. The exhibit, the first of four phases of the Wilder Vision fundraising program to expand animal habitats, features a mixed-species space, giraffe feeding, underwater hippo viewing, southern black rhinos and an exotic bird aviary

Tom Fox/Staff Photographer

The Fort Worth Zoo introduced its newest attraction last month. The new 10-acre African Savanna, the first installment in the $100 million capital campaign and building project called A Wilder Vision, gives visitors the chance to get some real face time with the animals, and to view them in a more natural setting.

Fort Worth Zoo

The central feature of the new habitat is an open savanna, where giraffes, zebras, lesser kudus, springbok, ostriches and African birds roam freely together, much like they do in the wild. The African Savanna also features a sunken enclosure on one side, allowing visitors to observe giraffes being fed at human eye level, and a 70-foot-long underwater tank for viewing hippos. The massive, slow-moving hippos had been introduced to their new habitats just days before the exhibit's opening, and they were already quite at home, splashing in their tank and exploring. As hippos spend most of their time underwater, it's a thrill to view them while they are fully submerged.

The habitat offers authentic touches intended to transport visitors to the appropriate locale, from African village street scenes, complete with tin-roof building facades and thatched-roof huts, right down to the rocks, vegetation and waterfalls in each enclosure. While most of these design details will be completely overlooked, their effect is real and it completes the scene, putting the animals into context.

But the design of African Savanna is not just about giving visitors a better vantage point for viewing, it's also better for the animals and crucial to the ongoing mission of the zoo.

"Giraffes naturally move as a herd; now they have the space to do just that," says Michael Fouraker, executive director of the zoo. "We currently have eight giraffes on exhibit, but the savanna can accommodate 12-16, and we are hoping the herd will increase in coming years."

With the Fort Worth Zoo's focus on conservation and breeding, having happy, healthy animals -- which are more likely to reproduce -- is a great benefit. That's expecially true for some species that are on the critically endangered list, like the Southern black rhinos, which are now kept in multiple expanded yards around the perimeter of the habitat. "Only two of our rhino pens are visible to the public, but there are three more which are out of view," Fouraker says.

Other enclosures near the rhinos include lesser flamingos, a species of flamingo occurring in sub-Saharan Africa, and an aviary housing additional exotic bird species. A new private event space with overlooks of the savanna, African-themed snack stands and merchandise shops have also been added.

Every detail goes into the overall vision, says Ramona Bass, co-chair of the Fort Worth Zoological Association Board of Directors. She has an ulterior motive for working so hard to see spaces like the African Savanna come to life -- to breed the next generation of conservationists. "First you have to entertain, then you can teach," she says. "That's what makes zoos like this one such a useful teaching tool. These animals depend on us ... we are the top of the heap," she says.

Bass, a major zoo supporter for three decades, took her hard hat off long enough to enjoyof the African Savanna's grand opening but went right back to work. She's already working on the next development phase at the zoo -- Elephant Springs -- which will debut in just two years.

"My husband brought me here to see the zoo 33 years ago," Bass says. "I'm not sure he knew what he was getting into. My children call the Fort Worth Zoo their fourth sibling."

Courtney Dabney is a Benbrook-based freelance writer.

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