Giraffes and lemurs and meerkats, oh my! This October*, the Oklahoma City Zoo opens Expedition Africa: a $35 million, 12-acre immersive experience designed to inspire visitors to consider how they can contribute to the conservation of the animals on display.
“This is a fundamental opportunity to connect kids with species they wouldn’t otherwise see,” said Dr. Dwight Lawson, the Zoo’s executive director and CEO. “On the sustainability front, the theming and graphics explain it’s [about] more than just an exotic animal from
the other side of the planet, but what [visitors] can do in terms of resource use.”
Leaders call the development of Expedition Africa the “most ambitious in the Zoo’s 120-year history.” Plans for the expansion began in 2018, and the habitat was funded through private donations and a dedicated 1/8-of-a-cent sales tax, approved by Oklahoma City citizens in 1990. Lawson says it’s the magnitude of this project, developed over the past 20 years, that has him most excited to unveil Expedition Africa to the public.
“We’re talking 77 different species, 200 plus animals, not counting fish, 35 species new to the Zoo — and it reprograms the entire center of the Zoo,” said Lawson. “Since moving the elephants out [to what is now Sanctuary Asia] in 2011, we’ve been making space in this core area to get to this point. From the turnstiles all the way to the [Joan Kirkpatrick Animal] hospital will be newly-programmed space.”
What’s new at the Zoo
Located in the heart of the Zoo just through the main entrance, Expedition Africa modernizes and elevates the entire visitor experience. Connecting directly to the existing Lion Overlook as well as Predator Pass, home of the cheetah habitat and the recently-updated habitat of the critically endangered African Painted Dogs, Expedition Africa’s pathways enhance walkability and expand beautiful views throughout the Zoo.
The habitat is home to more than 70 species native to the African continent, including giraffe, zebra, lemurs, wildebeest, hyena, cheetah, naked mole-rats, meerkat, ostrich, flamingos, gazelle, mongoose and honey badger. Some of these species already made their homes at the OKC Zoo, like giraffe and zebra, while others are brand new to the Zoo, like lemurs, naked mole-rats and honey badger.
The habitat includes 13 new buildings across three primary zones: the lush rainforest, the open vistas of the savanna and the transformed Pachyderm Building. Plus, the Zoo’s flamboyance of flamingoes has a new home within Expedition Africa’s water feature.
Take the trek
As guests enter the Zoo, their eyes will immediately be drawn up to the massive new lemur enclosure, part of the rainforest habitat. Past the lemurs’ multi-storied playscape, the savanna unfolds, punctuated by a brand-new giraffe barn, home of the Zoo’s growing herd. Guests can view giraffes from inside the barn, as well as in their outdoor habitat, and feeding opportunities are available year-round.
The Zoo’s historic Pachyderm Building, notable to many parents and grandparents who grew up in the metro, has been entirely reimagined. Constructed in the 1960s to house the Zoo’s elephants, rhinoceroses and hippopotamuses and listed on the National Register of Historic Spaces, the unique mid-century exterior has been preserved while the interior has been transformed into a multi-use space.
“There is a sense of nostalgia for the building, so it was important to find a way to keep it and reuse it,” said Lawson. “We’re keeping some of the past while also bringing in the new.”
Indoor habitats located throughout the building (including in some of the bathrooms!) feature fish and reptiles, as well as a glassed-in wall of tunnels through which guests can view the naked mole-rats scamper about. Placards explain the history of the building, including how it served as the decades-long home to Asian elephant Judy, purchased in 1949 through funds raised pennies and nickels at a time by Oklahoma schoolchildren.
Additional hints of nostalgia abound throughout the space, including some of the original flooring and pieces of the pachyderm enclosures, like the iconic red habitat gates. A section of the building now serves as an event space, and through clear partitions in the floor, guests will spy the concrete slopes of original habitat pools. After seeing elephants and rhinos roaming in the wide-open spaces of Sanctuary Asia, it’s especially hard for younger guests to imagine these giant creatures in the smaller habitats that were state-of-the-art when the facility was built.
“Generations of Oklahomans used to see elephants and rhinos here — and by keeping features and elements of the original building, they can share those connections,” said Candice Rennels, director of public relations. “Our caretakers are proud of the fact that it shows how the Zoo has evolved and how we’ve elevated habitat spaces.”
Rounding out the space, a new children’s outdoor play zone offers young guests clear views of the lemurs playing in their similar playscape. Expedition Africa’s restaurant Savanna Oasis offers African-inspired menu items and a mix of local favorites. Guests can also shop for exclusive gifts and apparel at the Expedition Africa gift shop.
From the animals’ perspective
Construction itself has been a long and laborious project, but just as intricate and intentional has been the movement of animals to their new homes. A full year of training the Zoo’s growing six-member giraffe herd culminated in each of them voluntarily boarding a truck for the short trek to their new barn. (It took four hours to move the six giraffes!)
“Giraffes do things on their own schedule,” laughs Rennels. “But they have a very patient caretaker staff and the move was as smooth as could be, a testament to the time and training put into that.”
Once moved, each of the species has ample time to acclimate to their indoor spaces off-view from the public before being introduced to their outdoor spaces and eventually being on-view to guests.
Expedition Africa’s savanna is home to multiple species at a time, which has required extra preparation and acclimation. Wildebeest and eland intermingle with giraffe, which Lawson says tells a “more comprehensive story.” The acclimation process involves many steps, including opportunities for the species to view each other without intermingling, time to explore the outdoor habitat one species at a time and, finally, nose-to-nose introductions in the space, all directed by the animals’ levels of comfort. Upon the official opening of Expedition Africa, this process may still be underway and guests may see temporary fencing in the space while the animals explore without direct contact.
Additional single-species yards in Expedition Africa provide more flexibility for the rotation of animals who’ve called Predator Pass home, like hyena, African Painted Dogs and cheetah. This helps keep the animals stimulated, provides opportunities for breeding and accounts for new packs to form or current packs to break apart. A zipline above the new carnivore yard will drop tasty treats and provide unique opportunities for guests to see the predators jump to capture their prey.
Speaking of carnivores, thanks to new pathways between Expedition Africa and Cat Forest, guests now have a secondary view of the lions from the back portion of their habitat. Lawson says the lions have enjoyed the new vantage point just as much as the humans!
Long-term plans include the final piece of the Zoo’s 10-year master plan: a new sea lion habitat to replace the old aquatics building, which will be demolished before the end of the year. The sea lions, harbor seals and other aquatic animals that called the building home were relocated to other Association of Zoos & Aquariums facilities in 2022.
Construction on the new 3.5-acre habitat will begin in the first quarter of 2024, and design plans will cover the current footprint of the aquatics building, plus the pollinator garden. Plans to add new pollinator gardens throughout the Zoo are already underway.
Lawson estimates the habitat will be complete in 2026. The Zoo plans to release a new 10-year master plan in early 2024. Learn more about all upcoming events, programs and memberships at okczoo.org.
*A previous version of the article stated that Expedition Africa was scheduled to open in September. The opening has been delayed to October 12.