New roof will help save jungle exhibit at Sedgwick County Zoo

08/20/2014 7:14 AM

08/20/2014 7:32 AM

The jungle at the Sedgwick County Zoo is getting a facelift – and not just for aesthetics.

Tropical plants were shriveling up inside the jungle building because they weren’t getting enough sunlight.

“The jungle was in a state of dying,” said Dan Wright, operations coordinator for the zoo.

The jungle building’s roof, which was about 22 years old and made of fiberglass panels created to let in translucent light, was no longer letting enough sunshine in.

Last October, the zoo checked light levels. At noon, the candle power level outside was 8,500. Inside the jungle, it was 49.5. In the jungle’s basement kitchen, where fluorescent lights were on, it was 98.

“We had twice as much light in a basement kitchen,” Wright said.

The jungle, which opened in 1977, is undergoing a $3 million renovation. The zoo closed the exhibit in March.

With no roof right now, the jungle and its plants are flourishing.

The jungle is getting a roof made from a new product developed in Germany called ETFE, short for ethylene tetrafluoroethylene. The fluorine-based plastic film is popular in Europe, Wright said. The Sedgwick County Zoo will be the second in North America to use the product.

“Big zoos in Europe have huge structures of it,” Wright said.

On a sunny day, the new roof should provide a candle power level of 5,000 to the jungle’s plants, Wright said. In general, tropical plants need a minimum level of 200, and high-light plants such as cacti need 1,000.

The new roof, scheduled to be put on the first week of October, will be a three-layer system inflated with air.

“The outer layer will have reflective dots on it, because we’ll actually have too much sun,” Wright said.

The jungle’s existing plants, though doing well now, have gone through a lot since the old roof came off in March.

“They’ve been hailed on, snowed on and survived some sub-30-degree temps,” Wright said. “There was a period in here in April when there was no green. We now have plants that are blooming that have never bloomed before.”

The jungle’s existing birds have been relocated to other areas of the zoo. Its fish have gone to other zoos.

When the jungle reopens Memorial Day weekend, it will have new plants and birds.

“We will have tropical microclimates,” Wright said.

Look for tropical succulents, ginger gardens, edible tropical plants, orchids and bromeliads. The jungle also will feature three new exhibits of birds that the zoo has been instrumental in helping save through the Mariana Avifauna Conservation Project.

The jungle also will get new walkways and signs.

“The jungle lake is going to be configured with a new biosphere of animals,” Wright said. “We will be able to have water plants. We will bring in new plants to make it a more interesting jungle.”

Renovations to the jungle had been scheduled to begin in a few years.

“It got moved up in priority because we were losing the exhibit,” Wright said.

The zoo also is raising money for a new exhibit for its elephants. Zoo spokeswoman Melissa Graham said the Sedgwick County Zoological Society still is working on a capital campaign. The $10.5 million exhibit, which would give the zoo room for more elephants, is scheduled to open Memorial Day weekend in 2016. But a groundbreaking is not yet on the calendar.

The zoo has planned a five-acre complex 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 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.

Reach Deb Gruver at 316-268-6400 or dgruver@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @SGCountyDeb.

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