A busy entrance at the Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium on June 26, 2013.

Click on the graphic for a closer view.

The Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium may seem to be in a sort of winter hibernation, but behind the scenes, it’s busier than ever.

Staffers at the zoo have been planning the African Grasslands project. This spring, the first buildings in the $73 million, 28-acre construction will open.

In June, the two buildings, which will house giraffe and elephants, will be open to view for a limited time before becoming winter-only attractions. Giraffes will move into their new enclosure this spring, while the elephants won’t arrive until sometime later this year..

The two buildings are the first major animal enclosures in a wave of upcoming construction that could run for the next decade. While it’s a sign of progress, there’s still a lot of work to be done.

“I’ve never been busier in my entire career,” said executive director and CEO Dennis Pate. “It’s just the march. Nonstop.”

Camouflage is taking a high priority in design plans. Pate said they want to provide unadulterated views into exhibits that give you the feeling you’re actually peering into a wild savanna.

The giraffe and elephant buildings, for example, will have soil piled on their walls about 20 feet high, with trees planted in it.

Camouflaging buildings isn’t new at the zoo. The Education and Conference Center built near the Suzanne and Walter Scott Aquarium goes mostly unnoticed, Pate said.

“Most people didn’t even realize we added a whole new 11,000 square feet because we painted it dark brown,” he said. “It just goes away.”

While many buildings will be hidden, a multipurpose facility is embracing the architecture of the area. Known as the African Lodge, it will house a rental and camp-out facility, a train station, a food area and restrooms. It will be modeled after similar structures in the region and is scheduled to open in June.

The current giraffe building will be demolished and replaced with a grand entrance to the southern part of the zoo. It will include a kopje (pronounced “copy”) — granite boulders emerging from the open savanna — and animals such as klipspringers, hyraxes, meerkats and monitor lizards. As visitors leave the kopje, they will get their first wide view of the African Grasslands.

“The savanna is 12 feet below you,” Pate said. “The whole savanna will lay out.”

The zoo hopes to finish the African Grasslands in mid- to late 2016. It will include sable antelopes, bongos, cheetahs, lions, rhinos and tortoises, and other animals. One building will feature a helicopter that will be used to illustrate game management efforts in Africa.

For now, the majority of the new area is still in development. Pate said he and the others at the zoo hope to wrap up design and development for the entire African Grasslands within the next month or so.

He’s excited. The busy, hectic years of planning at the zoo are beginning to bear fruit. The soon-to-come buildings mark the first major mile marker for what’s to come.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1734, chris.peters@owh.com, 

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