Zoo Atlanta’s African Savanna habitat nears completion

Zoo Atlanta is on the verge of a transformation unmatched since the 1980s.

In that decade, with the help of a $25 million renovation, the attraction went from a city’s embarrassment to a much-lauded exemplar of intelligent and humane design.

This summer the zoo will take another giant leap forward when it opens the first phase of a $50 million expansion. On August 8 visitors will be welcomed into the new African Savanna elephant habitat, a 103,000 square foot grassy park which will triple the amount of room available to the zoo's two female elephants, Kelly and Tara.

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The African Savanna is part of a dramatic reconstruction of the zoo called the "Grand New View." The changes include a new entry plaza, a new administration building/events space and the new home for the elephants.

Last week The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was treated to an exclusive hard-hat tour of the still-unfinished habitat, in the company of deputy director Hayley Murphy and president and CEO Raymond B. King.

Dozens of workers filled the site, pouring concrete, welding re-bar and ferrying hay and edible browse back and forth to the new Zambezi Elephant Center. Inside the towering indoor facility, Tara and Kelly waited, munching on tree branches, while their outdoor world took shape.

The Zambezi has room for seven elephants inside stalls that range from 600 to 1,200 square feet. That elbow room, along with the divided nature of the outdoor facility, means that the zoo will be able to house both bulls and cows, and could comfortably lodge two different family units.

King said, “We sent a team around the country looking for the best of the best, and they made a wishlist.” Murphy said she got almost everything on the list.

That includes a sand floor, which is better for the elephant’s feet; garage door-style ventilation; windows around the perimeter of the ceiling for natural light and an outdoor paddock.

Elephant keeper Nate Elgart stood by one of the opened garage doors, throwing sliced apples to Tara. He said the upgraded Zambezi center “puts our money where our mouth is,” in terms of animal care.

He added that the paddocks would be a big help in introducing new animals to the group.

“This is the best elephant house I’ve ever seen,” said Murphy.

Leaving the Zambezi house behind, the group walked around the perimeter of the outdoor area. The animals are contained within a combination of fencing and curving ridges that resemble eroded hillsides.

“These are modeled after an African riverbank,” said King. The rocky ridges are actually composed of gunite, artfully sculpted painted to become roots, rocks and dirt. Over the sides of the ridges poured two different waterfalls, and in between were meadows planted with Bermuda grass and lovegrass, some of it just barely established.

At the center was a pond with gently sloping sides and a fountain spraying in the middle. “The pond has almost 360-degree access,” said Murphy. “We’ve learned that if one elephant wants to be a water hog, the rest won’t use it.” Having general access keeps the pond democratic.

The watering hole is called Abana Pond, a tip of the hat to Abana Lake, a man-made water feature that was once part of Grant Park.

Some 315 new trees — beech, elm, maple, oak, poplar and others — were planted around the enclosure, while many existing trees were preserved to provide shade for animals and visitors.

Adjoining the elephants’ area is the giraffe habitat, where one of the long-necked creatures could be seen gliding through the shadows like a sailboat on legs. Eventually, zebra, ostriches and an antelope species will join the giraffes. Visitors can stand in the shade of a thatched-roof gazebo to watch these creatures, visit the warthogs or peer through the glass front of the meerkat family home nearby.

At one end of the elephant habitat was a curved “feeding wall,” looking like a cheese grater on a giant scale. From the inside of their habitat, Kelly and Tara (and new additions to the collection) will be able to poke their trunks through the holes in the wall to find treats on the other side. “That’s an enrichment experience for the animals,” said King. “They love to stay busy and think about things.”

Looking over the habitat was the historic Cyclorama building, with its curious collection of architectural styles — a Greek Revival face, an eight-sided body, a space-age, white-painted truss bridging the roof, to provide support over the open interior.

It was built in 1921 to house the monumental Battle of Atlanta cyclorama painting. When the Atlanta History Center took stewardship of the painting and moved it up to Buckhead in 2017, the zoo began extensive renovations of the historic structure, from the foundations on up, to turn the building into a new administration center and events facility.

Now called Savanna Hall, the structure is nearing completion, and should open for events in early 2020. Last week, workers poured concrete patios at ground level, and put finishing touches on the second and third-level balconies that look out over the elephant habitat.

Tens of thousands of elephants are killed for the ivory trade each year, and, according to Zoo Atlanta, the U.S. is still one of the largest importers of ivory. In 2014, Zoo Atlanta joined with the Wildlife Conservation Society to promote their "96 Elephants," campaign. The zoo supports Elephants for Africa, which works to create a peaceful co-existence between elephants and farmers in rural Botswana.

Last year, the zoo also announced a partnership with the Zambia-based Conservation South Luangwa, which works to identify and prevent illegal wildlife trade using anti-poaching patrols, aerial surveillance and detection dogs trained to find ivory, animal skins, ammunition and firearms.

Luangwa also works to promote conservation among farmers and other residents by safeguarding crops and reducing elephant-human conflict.

Tara and Kelly will stay inside for a little longer while the grass germinates and gets a toehold in the Georgia clay.