We are really excited about it. It’s so neat to have some of these gorgeous viewpoints and vantage points to see these animals kind of mixing and mingling how they do in the wild. —Erica Hansen, community relations coordinator

SALT LAKE CITY — For 3-year-old twins Ashley and Samantha Luckau, the zebras at Hogle Zoo's new African Savanna exhibit were quite the spectacle.

The girls could not stop staring and pointing Monday as they tugged on their mother's pant leg to get her attention.

The mixed-species exhibit — featuring giraffes, zebras, nyala, guinea fowl, geese, ostriches and four African lions — spans 4.5 acres of grass and the occasional watering hole.

It was difficult for onlookers to ignore the obvious staring contest going on between the lions and zebras.

"My favorite animal is the lion," Mac Jones, 4, said with wide eyes and a big smile. "It was weird that the lions are looking at the zebras. They might be looking at us."

Mac was visiting the zoo with his sister Brooke, neighbor Georgia and nanny Amy Wilder.

"It was interesting being able to see the lions stare at the zebras in actual, wild interaction. They looked hungry for them," Wilder said.

After 18 months of construction, the $16 million African Savanna exhibit officially opened Monday.

"We are really excited about it," said Erica Hansen, the zoo's community relations coordinator. "It’s so neat to have some of these gorgeous viewpoints and vantage points to see these animals kind of mixing and mingling how they do in the wild."

With the new exhibit came the reopening of the Zoofari Express. The train was outfitted with an environmentally friendly engine and bigger seats to accommodate visitors, and it offers close views of the Savanna exhibit.

"We had people who ran from the entrance right to the train station," said Brad Parkin, Hogle Zoo's director of marketing. "People have really missed the Zoofari Express, and it's great having it back."

The project was funded through a combination of public and private dollars, as well as a 2008 Salt Lake County general-obligation bond. The funding sources raised $44 million for three projects — the African Savanna, the 2012 Rocky Shores exhibit and a new animal hospital.

"I think it's important to note that from all that money we received … the multiple projects were all finished on time and on budget," Parkin said. "We are very proud of that. We feel like we are really good stewards of the county's money."

Zookeepers work with the animals on a daily basis to make sure the integration process is slow and safe, he said.

"They can see each other. They can smell each other. They know that they are there. We just have to be really careful when we put them together. We only get one shot at it, and we want that to go well," Parkin said.

Hansen agreed, saying a mixed-species exhibit can be a tricky process.

"The keepers are working hard every day," she said. "We’ve had zebras out on the savannah today, (and) they looked great. They were running around and exploring, so they were super fun to watch."

The new exhibit replaced what was once a duck pond and maintenance and administration office buildings.

"I think it’s a pretty good trade-off — ducks and pheasants for lions and zebras. What do you think?" Parkin said with a laugh.

Email: mcollette@deseretnews.com

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