Visitors to the Sedgwick County Zoo could take boat rides in a canal where elephants frolic in a few years, if everything goes as planned.
Zoo director Mark Reed first had that experience more than a decade ago while fishing on a pontoon boat on the Zambezi River in Africa.
He had been staying at Chiawa Camp on the Zambian side of the Lower Zambezi National Park, angling for tiger fish, when elephants came close to the boats.
The experience was surreal.
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If the zoo could pull off something like that, it’d be the first to do so, he thought.
Reed hopes it will happen in 2016 or 2017.
The zoo is moving toward its biggest capital campaign ever – $11.5 million to build a new elephant exhibit and bring four more of the vulnerable animals to Wichita.
The Sedgwick County Zoological Society probably will announce the campaign by the end of next month, Reed said. The zoo wants to raise a good chunk of the money before it takes the campaign public.
“Campaign leaders have been talking to our friends and families,” Reed said. “This kind of campaign requires precision planning.”
The society most recently raised $3 million for the Slawson Family Tiger Trek, which opened in 2009. Its biggest project was the $6.4 million Downing Gorilla Forest in 2004.
Designs are already in hand for the new elephant exhibit, which would be a five-acre complex situated between the gorilla exhibit and Pride of the Plains, which houses lions, warthogs and meerkats. The exhibit would include a 16,260-square-foot elephant barn.
The zoo wants to move forward with the expansion before it chances losing its elephants.
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums is requiring all accredited zoos that have elephants to have at least three females, two males or three of mixed gender by September 2016. Elephants, particularly females, are social creatures and do better in a herd.
If the zoo doesn’t expand its exhibit, its two elephants, Stephanie and Cinda, might have to relocate.
Elephants in zoos are managed under a species survival plan by the association. In the wild, elephants are threatened by poaching and loss of habitat. They are killed at a rate of 96 a day in Africa for their ivory, according to the website www.96elephants.org.
The zoo plans to get three more female elephants and a bull elephant to join Stephanie and Cinda, who have been at the zoo since 1972, a year after it opened.
“The goal is to breed them,” Reed said. “We want to have a reproductive herd to help with the long-term sustainability of elephants.”
The zoo is a private-public partnership between Sedgwick County and the zoological society. Earlier this year, the county forged a five-year funding agreement with the zoo that gave it the reassurance it needed to move forward with plans.
“That was one of the most important requirements before we could even think about this thing,” Reed said of the county’s financial agreement.
Project time line
Reed hopes to start construction late next year or early in 2015. The earliest the exhibit could be open is summer of 2016, he said.
The society is approaching previous donors, including individuals, corporations and foundations, all with a Wichita connection.
Craig Rhodes, vice president and studio lead at GMLV Architecture, a Wichita firm, did the design for the exhibit.
“To say I’m excited is a little bit of an understatement,” said Rhodes, who has been the architect of record on all the zoo’s projects since 1994. “It’s just absolutely fantastic for the elephants and fantastic for the community to move forward with a project of this caliber.”
Reed went to Rhodes with the idea of the water feature. Visitors would be protected by an underwater barrier but still would be able to be in the same body of water as the elephants.
“We believe that it’s going to be the first time that’s been done in the world,” Rhodes said. “Mark and I have built a good working relationship, and he’s been my mentor. The projects that get built out there are really a reflection of his goals and desires.”
Reed brings back photographs of his trips and tells Rhodes, “This is the kind of feel I want to create,” Rhodes said. “He really strives for uniqueness.”
The zoo offers boat rides now. But as part of the new exhibit, the boat canal would get a major upgrade.
“It’s going to be a completely difference experience when this project is done,” Rhodes said.
Scott Ochs, president of the zoological society, said he is optimistic about the campaign.
“It’s been a tough economy, and this is a big number. But I think we’re optimistic,” he said. “For me, it’s really about species survival. I don’t have grandkids, but if I did, there would be a real possibility that when they’d be my age, they wouldn’t have any elephants to see.”