Welcome to the African Forest

A new and unique experience at the Jacksonville Zoo

Photo: Graham McGeorge

You’ve seen the Land of the Tiger; you’ve traversed Wild Florida; you’ve visited Stingray Bay, but now the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens invites you out of Jacksonville and into Africa.
The exhibit formerly known as the Great Apes Loop has been undergoing a facelift since July 2017. Unveiled during a ribbon-cutting ceremony on August 31, the new African Forest exhibit is unique and breathtaking and is sure to enchant zoo patrons of all ages.
With sprawling overhead trails and completely refurbished enclosures, the wellness-inspired design gives its most important audience – the inhabitants – their best possible living arrangement. The gorillas, bonobos, lemurs, and mandrills that call the revamped exhibit home are social species that thrive off of diversity and stimulation.
“The idea is to introduce more choice and variety, especially with animals that are so social and so observant,” says Dan Maloney, deputy zoo director of animal care and conservation.
A forty-foot artificial kapok tree takes center stage as you enter the African Forest and follow the forking pathway around it. A series of sweeping aerial trails curve above the walkways, connecting the enclosures to the featured tree. Using these time-shared trails, similar to those in the Land of the Tiger, the animals are now able to move from space to space through the treetops as they would in their natural habitats.
Nestled within the hollow tree is a spiral staircase, which gives staff direct access to the animals for training and research. Through cleverly disguised enrichment tubes and portals, keepers and members of the zoo’s wellness division frequently interact with the animals outside of their regular enclosures. Patrons can witness these training sessions from a small amphitheater on one side of the tree.
Along with conventional training, the main portal is also the site of a cognitive interactive station. Through a touch pad computer screen, the animals communicate preferences and choices with behavior analysts, using symbols, shapes and colors. This research will allow the zoo to gain more insight into the lives and minds of its animals. “We are really trying to

Photo: Rob Bixby

learn from these animals so they can help us improve their lives,” says Maloney.
Back on the ground, guests are invited to immerse themselves in the new viewing areas, which allow patrons to observe the animals from grade level rather than from above.
Gorillas and mandrills are enjoying fully refurbished enclosures that include heating and cooling slabs, ground-level enrichment tubes, and sixty-two new species and cultivars of plants, many of which are edible.
The bonobos are now separated into their own enclosures and holding yards with two separate outdoor mesh-covered habitats, allowing them to remain outside at night – some gazing upon the stars for the first time. Lemurs, too, have a new habitat, and they have also welcomed a new species – sifakas – into their midst.
Impressively, all animals remained on site for the entirety of the build-out. By maximizing space and working with existing assets, the zoo was able to keep the project efficient and cost effective. “While the footprint is essentially the same, it doesn’t look like the same area,” says Maloney. “The topography is completely different.”

Read MoreBy Kate Jolley

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