Columbus Zoo and Aquarium
Heart of Africa: Savanna

Karen Huebel, Director, Theming & Interpretive Design – Planning & Design Department (author for Columbus Zoo and Aquarium)
Barbara Brem (editor for ZooLex)

Published 08 Nov 2018


4850 W Powell Rd, PO Box 400, Powell, OH 43065
Phone: 011 614 645-3400
URL: http://


flex-habitats, immersion, mixed species, savanna


Family:Species:Common Name:Capacity:
Felidae Acinonyx jubatus jubatus Cheetah 3.3
Gruidae Balearica reglorum gibbericeps East African grey-crowned cranes 6.4.0
Bucerotidae Bycanistes brevis Silvery-checked hornbill 1.2.0
Canidae Canis lupus familiaris labrador retriever Labrador retriever 2.0
Bovidae Connochaetes taurinus Brindled wildebeest 0.1.0
Bovidae Connochaetes taurinus albojubatus Eastern white-bearded wildebeest 2.4.0
Equidae Equus burchellii boehmi Grant’s zebra 0.6.0
Bovidae Eudorcas thomsonii Thomson’s gazelle 6.3.0
Bovidae Gazella leptoceros leptoceros Slender-horned gazelle 5.0.0
Giraffadae Giraffa camelopardalis reticulate Reticulated giraffe 6.0.0
Giraffadae Giraffa camelopardalis tippelskirchi Masai giraffe 1.2.0
Bovidae Nanger dama ruficollis Addra gazelle 3.3.0
Suidae Phacochoerus africanus Warthog 1.2.0
Struthionidae Struthio camelus Common ostrich 0.6.0
Bovidae Tragelaphus strepsiceros Greater kudu 1.3.0


  • 2014 Experience Columbus EXPY Award
  • 2014 Green Restaurant Association 4-Star Status
  • 2015 ENR Midwest Best Cultural Project
  • 2015 LEED Certified Restaurant Building
  • 2015 AZA Top Honors


The Heart of Africa is home to 155 animals and 25 species. Those that are listed here are kept in the enclosures specified in this description.

The guest is transported with the sights and sounds of a busy village. Entering the region through a hand-painted portico, guests begin their experience at the outskirts of Mudiwa – the replica of a lively, colorful African village, located at the edge of the savanna exhibits. The pathway theming aims at building the anticipation of guests as they begin to explore. A half-dozen bikes or so, laden with empty water jugs have been parked along fences, gates and walls that are covered with hand-painted murals. A camel ride is located on the opposite side of the path. Conservation messaging begins on this pathway as well – for example, a large wooden map of Africa highlights the countries and field projects that the zoo supports.

Once guests have entered Mudiwa Village, they find brightly painted kiosks which define a market area where Fair Trade products from Africa are offered for sale. The Mapori Restaurant serves local, freshly prepared and vegetarian food with some menu items featuring African cuisine. From the village, guests can take in the grassland vista and gaze onto the savanna dotted with clusters of wildebeests, gazelle, ostrich, zebras and giraffes. Beyond the village, guests enter the theme area of Ajabu National Park, where they can enjoy more views of the 3.2 hectare (eight-acre) savanna and the animals that live there. Graphic panels take on the look of a field guide of the savanna animals. A seemingly stranded airplane offers close views of lions. Continuing, guests come across a watering hole in which animals are continually rotated throughout the day; one may see ostrich in the morning only to return in the afternoon to see a cheetah run demonstration.

Further, a walk onto a raised deck allows guest to come face-to-face with giraffe and an opportunity to feed the herbivores. Around the corner, guests arrive at Jack Hanna’s campsite where they have an unobstructed view of the monkey exhibit.

The landscape mimics the savanna grassland with pockets of trees scattered throughout the animal habitats and public area spaces. More than 40 trees have branches at up to 5.5 meters (18’) above the savanna floor to shade the giraffe while trees with lower branches, protected from the giraffe, shade smaller hoof stock.

In the distance, a hill with scrubby plants completes what appears to be an endless savanna, and screens views of the adjacent residential neighborhood and perimeter fence system.

The Heart of Africa was designed with several project goals and interpretive outcomes in mind: to bring giraffe and zebra back to central Ohio; to create fun, exceptional guest experiences that offer inspiring conservation success stories and that feature Jack Hanna as the virtual “tour guide”; and to develop a region of the zoo that exceeds current standards and trends for animal care and management, and fiscal and environmental sustainability.



The Heart of Africa encompasses 173,922 m2 (43 acres) of land. Outdoor animal areas include the savanna, watering hole, and giraffe feeding habitats as well as off-exhibit holding. Indoor animal areas include both the giraffe and hoof stock barns. Indoor visitor space includes the Mapori Restaurant while outdoor viewing encompasses outdoor seating at the Mapori Restaurant, the lion viewing area, and the watering hole viewing area. The restaurant and lion viewing are included here because visitors have a view across the lion habitat onto the savanna. Staff area is indicated under "Others". Area for the public walkways is not included in the figures below.

Space allocation in square meters:

Use:Indoors:Outdoors:Total Exhibit:



Construction – 83.60 %; Site Furniture, Equipment, Etc. – 4.8 %; Interpretive items – 3.10 %

US Dollar 30,810,498 including 8.5% for design.



22 May 2014


Beginning: May 2011

  • Surveyors, Planners, Scientists, Civil Engineers: EMH&T Engineers, New Albany, OH USA
  • Structural Engineer: Jezerinac Geers & Assoc., Inc., Dublin, OH USA
  • Food Service Equipment Designer: Louis R. Polster Co., Columbus, OH USA
  • Theming: Optic Nerve Art Corp., Columbus, OH USA
  • Architect/ Planner: PGAV Destinations, St. Louis, MO USA
  • MEP/FP Engineers: Prater Engineering Associates, Inc., Dublin, OH USA
  • Interpretive Design: Roto, Dublin, OH USA
  • Habitat Construction / Theming: The Nassal Co., Orlando, FL USA
  • Landscape Designer: Zoo Horticulture Consulting and Design, Ossining, NY USA


Beginning: March 2013

  • Construction Management: Messer Construction Co., Columbus, OH USA
  • Construction: Smoot Construction Co. of Ohio, Columbus, OH USA


walter.gif This is a climatic diagram for the closest weather station.



The site was a farm field so all plantings were new and selected to visually represent the African savanna.

The plant list specifies the Latin names of the plants used for this exhibit.


The savanna habitat consists of three individual habitats which can be combined or left as individual areas: the Savanna Animal Habitat, the Watering Hole Habitat, and the Giraffe Feeding Habitat. Barriers and closed gates between the habitats allow them to function as separate exhibits. The gates allow flexibility to combine two or all three exhibits.

The savanna size encourages species-appropriate behaviors and encourages exercise. The adjacent watering hole allows individual species a location for increased activity and added opportunities for exercise.

A series of moats, mud banks and riprap “dry riverbeds” create barriers that are invisible to guests. These barriers keep animals in their respective habitats. A moat between the lion habitat and the savanna separate the animals but allows them to see one another and provides the guests a unobstructed view across both habitats. A 10’ (3m) perimeter (8’ (2.4m) chain-link, 2’ (0.6m) hotwire) was installed at the base of the hill at the back of the habitat.

The hoofstock and giraffe holding buildings allow animals to be shifted into buildings and from one habitat to another in multiple ways, and provides versatility of outdoor holding spaces. The barns have Cira skylights which allow natural light into the barn, save energy, and provide animals with natural UV rays, and a Lixit drinking system.

The giraffe holding barn contains nine stalls and one large community room with decomposed granite flooring, slow feeders, and high moveable hayracks on an anti-slip pulley system.

Shift-ways and transfer chutes allow animals to be shifted on and off exhibit in the Water Hole Habitat throughout the day.



The hoofstock holding barn has a 60 meter (190-foot) hallway with a push-board alley (two large doors on a tack system). The push-board alley is used daily and assists with separating and shifting animals. It also provides a safe means of transferring animals to the tamer when procedures or check-ups are required. A scale is located at the point of animal egress where keepers can check weights regularly. Transfer doors into the stalls from the center keeper aisle provide cross transfer chutes for moving animals.

In the giraffe barn, a shift-way runs half the length of the barn that allows for moving and transferring animals on/off trailers. It also houses a giraffe restraining device (GRD) used to ensure keeper and giraffe safety while performing procedures like blood draws, injections and hoof care. A mezzanine running the length of the barn ensures keeper safety and provides important training opportunities at the height of the giraffe.

Food storage and prep rooms are located in each barn.

Each species is trained to shift to a unique recall sound, and different entry points are used into the barn decreasing the potential for accidents upon animal entry and exit.

The watering hole shift-ways allow keepers to shift the cheetah, warthogs and other species without keepers present in the runways. This allows quick transition as species are rotated.

The area east of the giraffe feeding pavilion has a large wall where keepers can train with the giraffe while the animals remain on view.



The watering hole holding building and shift areas are not visible to the guests but the flexible schedule of animals on exhibit provide a varied experience for the guests.

The giraffe feeding habitat provides guests the opportunity to view and feed the giraffe. The raised boardwalk provides the guests an eye-to-eye experience with the giraffe. Guests can also view the savanna and the watering hole from the elevated boardwalk. East of the feeding pavilion, guests can see into an area where special events take place.

There are two food stands in addition to the main restaurant; restrooms on either side of the region; smaller carts for beverages/ice cream; separate smoking areas on either side of the park; keeper talk locations; hand wash stations near giraffe feeding; shade panels for viewing in comfort; misters for hot days; exterior and interior seating at the restaurant; nursing station for mothers with infants; speaker system for keeper talks; and glass viewing inside the restaurant of both the lion and savanna.



Visitors can purchase items made by one of the African co-ops supported by the Zoo. The schoolhouse stage hosts programs, activities, and performances each day. Guests can attend keeper talks and talk with docents about the different conservation organizations whose work the Zoo supports, and they can donate loose change to conservation organizations. Signs and interpretive material has been coordinated with the African theme.



Training and management requirements exceed current standards and include variation of feeding strategies that incorporate natural feeding behaviors and exclude other animals; development of an extensive training plan that allows animals to be moved off the savanna on an individual species cue, as well as shifting animals into the watering hole on cue; development of an extensive bird training plan that allows keepers to weigh, monitor, and care for birds found in the savanna; and exhibit complexity with safe zones, varying substrates and a healthy pasture which is managed and maintained for year round grass.

Watering hole shift-ways were designed to allow keepers to shift the cheetah, warthogs, and other species without their presence in the runways.

Each species is response-trained to shift to/from areas of the exhibit and to indoor holding areas to ensure animal safety, to allow keepers to manage the animal safety, and to prevent overgrazing. Birds do not shift off exhibit overnight. Birds are trained for wing presentations as well as scale training.

Zoo security personnel monitor temperatures in animal holding areas, assure all doors and gates are locked, and maintain a secure perimeter. Emergency medical workers (EMS) providers are on-site during guest hours while first aid / CPR / AED certified security staff is available during non-visitor hours. A fire detection system is monitored 24/7.



A multi-phase summative evaluation was conducted in the months following the opening of the exhibit to assess the guest experience, determine the impact of the exhibit on guest knowledge, determine the affective impact of the exhibit on guests, see if conservation interest of the guests was impacted, and determine the success of interactive / educational experiences.

Results across the board showed that guest reaction to Heart of Africa was very positive and the exhibit did, in fact, meet all of the goals. 93% of participants indicated that their expectations were met or exceeded. When asked about messaging, the most common response focused on animals – whether it was learning about animals, appreciating animals, working to save endangered animals or that Africa has beautiful animals. Other common topics were conservation and life in Africa in general. 65% of participants indicated they remembered seeing conservation-related elements as part of the Heart of Africa exhibit. They primarily remembered seeing interpretive
signs relating to recycling, endangerment status among the different animals, the different conservation organizations the zoo supports, etc. 39% attended an animal demonstration, 31% had an interaction with a docent or Zoo Aide, 29% attended a keeper talk. Attendance increased by 473,320 guests or 23.7%. The average stay time in the Heart of Africa exhibit among adults with children was 54.38 minutes.



The zoo participates in the dama gazelle SSP and the Masai giraffe SSP.

The Zoo features 11 complex, on-going wildlife conservation efforts related to the African savanna animals that are on display for the guests. Over $420,000 has been donated to in-situ conservation projects related to savanna species. Interpretive tools focusing on these projects are incorporated into the guest experience in a number of ways including themed signage, interactive elements and dimensional props.

During the design and construction process, on-site efforts were catalogued in the following areas: recycle / landfill program, water efficiency, indoor environmental air quality, materials and resources, energy and atmosphere and sustainable sites. Construction recycling for the entire Heart of Africa site exceeded 91%.

The Mapori Restaurant was awarded a 4-star Green Restaurant Certification in 2014, and LEED certification was achieved in 2015.



Re-use or repurposing of existing materials was a key factor. An 1890’s one-room schoolhouse was repurposed as an African schoolhouse. An aged barn was dismantled and restored in a nearby county park as a feature for their 1940’s era family farm. A grove of Osage orange trees was protected and incorporated into the guest pathway. Holding and service areas were designed around an existing grove of trees. Boulders were harvested from the site and previous zoo projects for use as animal exclusion barriers. Topsoil was stocked-piled and re-used in the savanna. All site spoils were used on the site. The wooded portion on the north side of the site was protected and maintained as a backdrop and screen. Trees that were cut for utility runs and / or service drives were re-used on the site as deadfall and upright snags. A geothermal system was added to the existing system to heat and cool the Mapori restaurant.

The lion moat as well as remote moats at the perimeter containment of the savanna serves as temporary water detention basins.



© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium


Site Plan

Site Plan

© PGAV Destinations, 2013




© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, Grahm S. Jones, 2016


Entry portal

1. Entry portal

© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, Grahm S. Jones, 2014


Mudiwa Village

2. Mudiwa Village

© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, 2014


Mudiwa Village

3. Mudiwa Village

© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, PGAV Destination, 2014


Conservation map

4. Conservation map

© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, Astrid Kreidl, 2016



5. Savanna

© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, Grahm S. Jones, 2014


Hoofstock savanna view

6. Hoofstock savanna view

© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, PGAV Destinations, 2014


View across the watering hole into savanna

7. View across the watering hole into savanna

© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, PGAV Destinations, 2014


View across the savanna

8. View across the savanna

© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, Grahm S. Jones, 2014


Watering Hole Habitat

9. Watering Hole Habitat

© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, Grahm S. Jones, 2014


Educational signage

10. Educational signage

© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, 2016


Guests view into watering hole habitat

11. Guests view into watering hole habitat

© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, PGAV Destinations, 2014


Watering hole

12. Watering hole

© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, Astrid Kreidl, 2014


Slender-horned gazelle

13. Slender-horned gazelle

© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, 2014


Bird fly-ways

14. Bird fly-ways

© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, Astrid Kreidl, 2014


Cheetah at the watering hole

15. Cheetah at the watering hole

© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, Astrid Kreidl, 2014


Community Room – Giraffe Barn

16. Community Room – Giraffe Barn

© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, 2014



17. Giraffe

© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, PGAV Destinations, 2014


Giraffe in savanna

18. Giraffe in savanna

© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, 2014


Feeding giraffe

19. Feeding giraffe

© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, PGAV Destinations, 2014


Gate at giraffe habitat

20. Gate at giraffe habitat

© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, Astrid Kreidl, 2014


Giraffe feeding pavilion

21. Giraffe feeding pavilion

© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, Astrid Kreidl, 2014


Boardwalk and feeding pavilion

22. Boardwalk and feeding pavilion

© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, PGAV Destinations, 2014


Educational signage

23. Educational signage

© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, Astrid Kreidl, 2016


Zig-zag display

24. Zig-zag display

© Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, 2016