It’s been more than seven years and $8.5 million in the making, but finally, Reid Park Zoo’s seven-acre exhibit, “Expedition Tanzania,” has been completed, and now houses five new elephants.

In January 2005, Parks and Recreation Director Fred Gray had already committed to raising $4 million to complete the zoo’s Conservation Learning Center when he was informed the zoo had to come up with an additional $8.5 million to develop a new elephant facility as part of a species survival plan, or potentially sacrifice housing elephants in Tucson altogether.

At the time, Reid Park only accommodated two elephants, while the new plan called for the zoo to house at least six.

“We had to make a decision ASAP as to whether we were going to continue to house elephants in Tucson,” said Gray.

Believing the money could be raised, Gray went before the City of Tucson Mayor and Council and the city manager. After some deliberate review and analysis, a 50/50 funding plan was formed between the City and the Tucson Zoological Society for both the Conservation Learning Center and Expedition Tanzania. 

Despite difficult economic circumstances, the City and Zoological Society managed to raise the money, and over the weekend, starting on March 25, Reid Park hosted a members-only preview of Expedition Tanzania to introduce the five new elephants: Mabu, Samba, Punga, Sundzu, and Lungile.

Reid Park’s two former elephants, Connie and Shaba, are set to be moved to the San Diego Zoo together after controversial talks to separate them were publically criticized.

Jeff Baymor, president of Reid Park Zoological Society, recognized a number of individuals whose donations made the project a reality. Jim Click and family, some of those to help sponsor the project, were awarded with a plaque to be hung inside the exhibition.

“There is no way the Click family can ever repay Tucson Arizona for what it has done for us,” said Click. “It’s an honor for us to be able to give back. This is a great cause. This is a great project.”

Tucson Mayor Jonathon Rothschild said the need for public-private partnerships is crucial in working together to develop projects such as Tanzania.

“It’s a culmination of years of work that began with the prior City Council who really decided to upgrade the Reid Park Zoo’s elephant habitat to exceed the standards that we want to maintain for having elephants.”

Rothschild said the project is particularly important because elephants continue to be endangered due to habitat destruction, poaching, war, and the ivory trade.

“It’s important that we address the root causes of that problem,” he said. “What we can do as a city is consider the role of zoos in the place of species preservation and educating people how to care about elephants, and to care enough about them to want to save them.”

Rothschild said an expected 530,000 people, including 35,000 schoolchildren, will come through the zoo this year. Now, they will have the opportunity to see and learn about the new elephants, he added.

Susan Basford, administrator of the Reid Park Zoo, was one of a few to see Expedition Tanzania from beginning to end.

“Today is a day to celebrate. We’re celebrating partnerships, we’re celebrating commitments, we’re celebrating dedication, and that’s really what it’s taken to get to this point,” she said.

Project Tanzania will be open to the public on March 28.

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