NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The largest private donation ever made to the Audubon Nature Institute will bring the lion's roar back to the Audubon Zoo.
Shipbuilding philanthropists Boysie Bollinger and his wife, Joy, have donated $5 million to fund a new habitat for African lions. The donation marks the largest single gift the zoo has ever received from an individual or family.
Multiple media outlets report the plan calls for a new 65,340 square foot (6070.23 sq. meter) exhibit on a site that now houses the zoo's eland collection. The lions' new home is slated to be finished as early as 2018.
This fall marks three years since lions have been at the zoo. Bubba, a male, died of cancer in May 2013. A 19-year-old female, Cassie, "retired" to the Audubon Species Survival Center later that year.
Joel Hamilton, the zoo's general curator, said the new exhibit will feature about 12,000 square feet (1114.83 sq. meters) of roaming space, as well as a state-of-the-art, 4,000-square-foot (371.61-sq. meter) holding facility.
"We never pictured us being a facility without lions," Hamilton said. "There's always been a desire to bring them back. So this is pretty cool, that we're able to do this."
Inside the exhibit, the lions will have access to "kopjes," or granite formations found in the African savanna. Zoo officials say kopjes provide shelter for lions and other wildlife by creating shade, pools of water and vantage points to spot predators. The rocks in this exhibit will feature lithographs, to signify that humans, too, have used the kopjes for shelter.
Future developments in the African section of the zoo could include a lodge that would allow visitors to see the whole savanna. Eventually, the area may also feature exotic species like giraffes, river hippos, rhino and black-backed jackals, officials said.
"While the zoo is a phenomenal facility, the kingpin, so to speak, should be the African exhibit and the lions," Boysie Bollinger said. "Children and adults as well can (soon) be exposed to the Africa that they will never see in person. They will be able to feel like they know what the wildness of Africa is."
Although plans aren't yet final, conceptual designs call for new pathways to allow visitors a closer look at the animals. The exhibit will also host viewing stations, much like the glass panels featured in the orangutan habitat that opened this year.
"This is very different," Hamilton said, comparing it to the zoo's old lion exhibit. "It's a better, larger space, and a much different kind of space."
If all goes as planned, a gorilla habitat, too, could house primates, mandrills, red river hogs, mangabeys, pygmy hippos, bongo and okapi.
"We have a whole plan of moving the zoo even more in a geographic direction, to teach better messages about the environment, the animals and how they're all interrelated," Hamilton said. "We're really looking at this to kick-start other exhibits of Africa."
Initially, zoo officials expect the lion exhibit to house one male and two females, with the ultimate goal of breeding lion cubs in the future.