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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Expedition Tanzania brings family of elephants to Reid Park Zoo

    A 7-acre expansion to Tucson’s Reid Park Zoo opened to the public today, and Mabu, Samba, Punga, Sundzu and Lungile — a family of African elephants — are at the center of this long-awaited addition.

    The seven-year endeavor cost an estimated $9.7 million. The effort, called Expedition Tanzania, was a joint venture between the Reid Park Zoological Society and the city of Tucson, according to the city of Tucson’s website. Equipped with a barn, 98,000-gallon pool, 3 acres of open space and plenty of walking paths for visitors, Expedition Tanzania offers an exciting experience for those eager to see the elephants up close.

    “Every capital project has a story,” said Fred Gray, director of the City of Tucson Parks and Recreation Department, at Expedition Tanzania’s grand opening event on Friday. “This one is a novel.”

    Gray said the idea to construct a new exhibit arose when the city was deciding whether or not to keep elephants on-site at the zoo. City officials supported the project because of its potential for expansive educational opportunities, tourism growth and the acquisition of a new herd with breeding possibilities.

    “Many may recall that the initial fundraising efforts came from children saving nickels, quarters and dimes, putting them in a container and bringing them to the zoo,” Gray said. Significant private contributors soon followed, such as the Jim Click Family Foundation, Tucson Electric Power and former Tucson Zoological Society’s board member Linda Hinds’ entire estate.

    Despite the high price tag and changes of staff in both city government and zoo administration over the last seven years, Expedition Tanzania persevered.

    “It’s a culmination of years of work,” Mayor Jonathan Rothschild said. “We really decided to upgrade the Reid Park Zoo’s elephant habitat to better meet, actually exceed, the standards that we want to maintain for having elephants.”

    Rothschild described the exhibit as an example of a successful partnership between public and private enterprises. He stressed that zoos must play a key role in species preservation, while encouraging people to “care enough about (elephants) to want to save them.”

    From the beginning, Expedition Tanzania was no stranger to controversy. When news surfaced that current elephant residents Connie and Shaba would be separated after 30 years together, the animal rights community banded together in protest. Reid Park Zoo then arranged for the two elephants to move together to the San Diego Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey exhibit, which is experienced in caring for older elephants.

    In turn, San Diego arranged for the transportation of five elephants from their Safari Park to Tucson between late February and early March: Mabu, a 10,500-pound male, Samba, mother to 5-year-old male Punga, and Sundzu, who is only 1 year old. Lungile, another female, also joins the family.

    Sue Tygielski, Reid Park Zoo’s area supervisor and overseer of the new exhibit, said that transporting Connie and Shaba to California while preparing for the arrival of the new elephants was challenging. But once they arrived, they assimilated quickly into their new environment, she said. Borrowing training methods from the elephants’ previous keepers in San Diego helped ease the transition.

    “There definitely is a trust relationship,” Tygielski said. “The longer that you work with them in a positive manner, the more they will trust you.”

    So far, both the elephant family and the two zoos are embracing the transition.

    “We are talking to the San Diego keepers a lot, but what’s been really fun is that we call them to see how our elephants are, and they’re just as curious to see how their elephants are,” Tygielski added. “We do a lot of texting, sharing photographs and emails so that everybody is really informed.”

    Eventually, the zoo plans to implement a breeding program that will broaden the gene pool of America’s elephants, according to Dina Corrales, a zookeeper at Reid Park Zoo. Because these elephants came from a diverse genetic pool of about 18 elephants, they are ideal for breeding, she said.

    While construction on the majority of the project is complete, the zoo will continue to make changes and additions that will ensure the comfort of the animals.

    “Any time you build an animal exhibit, the animal’s going to tell you real quickly what you’ve got to change,” said Jim Schnormeier, general curator of the zoo. “It’s ongoing, so for the life of the exhibit we’ll always be having to modify and change as the animals change. It’s not just something you build and walk away from.”

    For more info

    Visit the zoo’s website at, call 791-3201 or visit the zoo on 1100 S. Randolph Way any day between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m.

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