Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Evolution of Heart of Africa at the Columbus Zoo

In anticipation of the opening of the Columbus Zoo’s new region, Heart of Africa, on May 22nd I thought I would take a moment to look back on the past plans for the exhibit. An African savanna has been part of the zoo’s masterplan for more than a decade. The name, species, and scale of the region have all evolved over the years. I’ll wait until I visit to judge the final product but it seems as though everything has been scaled back from the grand master plans. All the plans had two things in common: an African village and all were located in the same area North of Old Powell Road. The exhibit has been known as East Africa Plains, Africa Savanna, the African Safari, Safari Africa, Africa, and finally Heart of Africa. Please note this information is based on my own research; I have no insider info so please comment and correct if you know of any errors.

East African Plains 

When: 1998
Size: 65 Acres
Budget: $80 million
Attractions: Safari bus ride, village, lodge, playground

east africa plains columbus zoo 1998

The earliest proposal for adding an Africa region that I've seen is of a plan drawn up in 1998 by PJA. The massive expansion was called the East African Plains and the plans looked simply incredible! Adjacent to the existing zoo, the East Africa Plains project was to be built on 65 acres of simulated East African habitats. A visitor’s journey would begin in a village overlooking a small lake with flamingos and pelicans. Warthogs burrow in an abandoned airstrip. In the village guests pass through the Customs House where they receive a passport. From the village, visitors embark on a bus safari through wooded and grassy savannas and kopje habitats. There would also be a walking path that leads through a gallery forest to a lodge, serving refreshments. Rested visitors can walk from the lodge to the kopje and interpretive playground. The budget for this was $80 million (in 1998 dollars). Sounds similar to Harambe area and Kilimanjaro Safaris at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Probably more of a “blue sky” idea rather than a serious proposal.

columbus zoo african safari concept art

African Savanna 

When: 2002
Size: 50 Acres
Budget: unknown
Attractions: Train ride, boat ride, lodge/camping

african savanna map columbus zoo 2002

The next set of plans are from the 2002-2003 time-frame and describe a new African Savanna region. On 50 acres of land at the Zoo, visitors will be transported to the African plains, the most productive grassland ecosystem in the world. A variety of hoofed mammals and the predators that typically follow them on their seasonal migrations will be visible in naturalistic settings. Moving herds of antelope, giraffe and zebra, as well as lions, wild dogs, hyenas, rhinos, hippos and warthogs will be viewed by the visitors as they travel over rail, paddle down a simulated Zambezi River and hike along walking trails. There will be potential opportunities for chaperoned group camping on the edge of a waterhole, for interacting with live interpreters and for participating in the bustle and activity of an African village market.

In this diagram from the Columbus Dispatch we see an African Savanna area is scheduled to be added by 2010:

Safari Africa

When: 2012
Size: 43 Acres
Budget: $30.4 million
Attractions: Ziplines, camel rides, giraffe feeding, cheetah runs

In 2012, plans for a new 43 acre African Safari exhibit were approved and scheduled to open in mid-2014. Safari Africa would feature a gateway to a simulation of a national park in Africa called Ajabu Park. The first overhead rendering of the region appeared in the Summer 2012 edition of Beastly Banner (shown above). The camels are not shown on the map but meerkats are. It also looks like the tram station was going to be located in the region (and not by the Polar Frontier region as it is now). Also of note is a zipline is listed as one of the attractions, though this was probably cut to differentiate it from the Wilds who already operates a zipline (which is better than any the zoo could build quite frankly).

Safari Africa officially broke ground in September of 2012. An early rendering of the region in the Columbus Dispatch included rhinos as one of the species (shown below). I’m not sure if this was a mistake by the artwork creator or if the zoo really was planning on moving the rhinos here and this is the only rendering that includes rhinos. 

In April 2013, the region was still being referred to as Safari Africa by the zoo. In November 2013, the concept art was changed to just plain Africa. In this plan, we can see the African veldt exhibits have been combined from two into one large enclosure. The tram station has been removed. The camels have also been added and meerkat are still present: 

Heart of Africa

When: 2014
Size:43 Acres
Budget: $30.4 million
Attractions: Camel rides, giraffe feeding

columbus zoo heart of africa map

The latest official plans were released in February 2014 where the name Heart of Africa was unveiled. Zoo officials decided that Valentine’s Day was the perfect time to unveil the official name for the 43 acres that will be home to nearly 150 animals. The name of the region was changed from Safari Africa to differentiate it from the Wilds (there are currently banners up at the zoo with the Safari Africa name on them, oops). The meerkat exhibit, which was still being shown in the plans a year ago, has apparently been cut. The final budget is $30.4 million dollars and will open to the public on May 22nd, 2014. Giraffes, zebras, and cheetahs will make their return to the zoo.

Future Heart of Africa Expansion Plans

The Columbus Zoo’s long range plans already call for a Heart of Africa Expansion that would include an overnight-tented camp, a meerkat exhibit and other animal and visitor attractions that would end up tripling the size of the region. A new train ride would be installed that would end up as a replacement for the one currently in North American that would be removed when that region gets its extensive and much needed overhaul.


Heart of Africa at the Columbus Zoo is set to open next week and it’s interesting to see how the plans for the region evolved over the years. What we ended up with will be quite different from some of the earlier ideas. The plans were scaled back from $80 to $30 million dollars and from 60 to 40 acres. That’s not to say more won’t be added in a Phase II expansion soon. It’ll be interesting to see what surprises the zoo has in store for us. It was recently revealed that aardvarks will have a home in the exhibit, a species not previously mentioned in any of the plans! I look forward to seeing the final product. Stay tuned for our coverage of the opening of Heart of Africa.

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