COLUMBUS, Ohio (WTVN) -- In just over a year a 110 acre soybean field just north of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium has been transformed into an African savanna. The zoo's newest expansion will open in May of 2014.
"It's just amazing," said Tom Stalf, the president and CEO of the zoo, who took reporters on a tour of the construction site to see the progress.
When it is finished it will feature animals like lions, zebras, cheetah, wildebeest, and back by popular demand giraffe.
"We wanted to bring them back and tell that story of where they come from, the culture around them, the conservation success," Stalf said noting that since giraffes left about a decade ago for the Asia Quest expansion visitors and staff have consistently listed them as the top request.
Stalf says visitors will get the experience of an African safari when they arrive. When you enter the exhibit you'll see an African village. It features a dining area with a buffet that is enclosed with a large window looking out over a savanna. Lions will be able to come right up to visitors as they dine.
A giraffe feeding area will allow visitors to get a close encounter. The zoo is starting off with 11 giraffes, but can expand the herd up to 20.
"You'll have so much fun seeing these animals up close with unobstructed views, but there's a message behind that," Stalf said noting that they'll be highlighting seven different conservation efforts the zoo supports around the world.
There's also an encampment facility set up to show guests what it's like to go into the wild with Jack Hanna. It will feature vervets, a type of primate known to raid camps for food and snacks.
"Both sides of the exhibit will have camping gear and things like that to show how the vervets manipulate and what they do to the campsite," said Adam Felts, assistant curator at the zoo.
The lion exhibit will have an old Beech-18 transport plane where children can play and watch lions as they rest on the wings.
The new expansion will also include a large private event area for things like weddings, business meetings, and other events.
The total project costs $30.4 million and is paid for through a property tax levy in Franklin County along with corporate and private donations.