The Memphis Zoo is six months away from having its African exhibits vastly expanded to include a brand new home for the hippopotamuses.
The four-acre Zambezi River Hippo Camp is meant to feel like a safari along a river. The exhibit, which opens in March 2016, will give visitors a glimpse into the wildlife of the region in Africa that doesn't just stop at hippos; it also includes flamingos, crocodiles, and birds — complete with an aviary. The entire camp is modeled after a fishing village in the region, along with a plantation that will show the region's relationship to coffee.
The exhibit will also feature open multipurpose buildings housed in rondavels
— South African-style huts. The second story will allow visitors to have a higher view of the animals below with the ability to see all parts of the Zambezi River Hippo Camp.
The hippo exhibit falls in line with a trend of zoos in recent years to focus on regions or groups of animals rather than just one classification of animal. According to Chuck Brady, CEO and president of the Memphis Zoo, that's the way the Memphis Zoo has been going for the last ten years.
"When we developed 'China,' for our giant pandas, we made a turn in our thinking in a sense where we went to a themed exhibit that was far more than just an exhibit of wildlife," Brady said. "We wanted to have aspects of culture, conservation interests, [and] information about the people, what they were like. We did a great job with 'China,' and we wanted to stick with that."
Brady said by 2000, the original hippo exhibit was "antiquated" and inefficient through its use of "dump-and-fill" pools, where the water is dumped out every day.
"It wasn't pleasant to look at," Brady said. "We have a long history with hippos. It was time. That structure and facility was passed its useful life. That's what we tried to avoid throughout our campus."
One reason the new hippo home stands out is due to its aquarium-like observation points, under covered walkways for visitors to see how the hippos and crocodiles interact and live underwater. There will be three hippos total in the exhibit. The newest one to be added, a male, comes from Disney World's Animal Kingdom. Four Nile crocodiles will be shipped to the zoo from a farm in South Africa.
The exhibit will be heavily interactive on top of its park-wide Keeper Chats — where zookeepers talk to the public about the specific animals — including drums ripe for beating and canoes for kids to play in.
The Zambezi River Hippo Camp is the last major exhibit out of the 20-year master plan. A new 20-year plan should be ready in about a year in a half, according to Brady.