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African Adventure opens Thursday at Fresno Chaffee Zoo

New lion exhibit is the pride of African Adventure

The Fresno Chaffee Zoo's mother and daughter African lion exhibit offers plenty of viewing areas to get up close and personal with one of the new exhibits that make up African Adventure. Zoo staff showed off the exhibit when it opened in October 2
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The Fresno Chaffee Zoo's mother and daughter African lion exhibit offers plenty of viewing areas to get up close and personal with one of the new exhibits that make up African Adventure. Zoo staff showed off the exhibit when it opened in October 2

The largest project that will likely ever be undertaken at Fresno Chaffee Zoo is finished, except for the opening.

The 13-acre African Adventure addition on the southeastern edge of Roeding Park will be unveiled to the public on Thursday.

Nearly all the animals are in place and final touches were being made to the African lodge, restaurant and trails last week.

The project also features real trees, artificial trees, artificial rocks – some heated – even phony termite mounds. There are close-up animal views through glass partitions and expansive views of acreage offering a grassy African plain scene complete with wildebeests, ostriches, zebras, giraffe, rhinos, elephants and – in a separate, attached enclosure – lions.

African Adventure was mired for three years in litigation over whether the city of Fresno’s environmental documents for Roeding Park were properly completed. When the city and zoo finally got the green light in 2013, designers laid out the acreage and sought ways to make the project appear seamless.

21Number of months since groundbreaking for African Adventure

For those who visit zoos, African Adventure most closely resembles Safari Park in Escondido, said Scott Barton, Fresno Chaffee’s director.

Its best features are, he said, “proximity to animals and large areas for them” to roam.

Separating the lions and African elephants from other more docile savanna creatures are fenced, grassy areas dug underground that are difficult to detect from a visitor’s vantage point.

Construction took 21 months and cost $56 million. It was funded with the remainder of Measure Z money from the 2004 proposal, which also paid for Sea Lion Cove, Stingray Bay, Dino Dig and a river otter project in the old sea lion enclosure.

In the final months, the Africa project was complicated by transporting animals from across the country, and new employees were arriving and blending in, too, Barton said.

$56 millionThe cost for African Adventure

Many of the 100 animals are large, such as lions from San Diego, African elephants from Arkansas and San Diego, rhinos from Florida, cheetahs from Nebraska and pelicans from Canada.

“Animals were moved clear across the country safely, passed through quarantine, were introduced to their exhibits and each other safely,” said Barton, looking out over the African elephant exhibit beside a huge, fake baobab tree.

The zoo is part of the Aquarium and Zoo Association’s breeding programs. A male lion will be joining the two females next month, and elephants and rhinos also could be bred.

The project, which was managed by Harris Construction, stayed on schedule with the original late summer or early fall opening date suggested by Barton last year.

Eventually, after approval last year of Measure Z’s extension of funding, there will be more projects.

To tell you the truth, everyone is a little exhausted. After we open, we’re going to be taking a deep breath.

Scott Barton, Fresno Chaffee Zoo director

The final expansion will include about 8 acres and return hippos to the zoo along with several new species. One plan includes a river exhibit with otters, crocodiles and monkeys. Another project within the zoo’s existing grounds will feature tigers in an Asian forest setting.

But, for now, Barton said, zoo officials want to pace themselves after their own version of an African Adventure.

“To tell you the truth, everyone is a little exhausted,” Barton said. “After we open, we’re going to be taking a deep breath.”

Marc Benjamin: 559-441-6166, @beebenjamin

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