Akron Zoo wrapping up construction on Wild Asia area for tigers, red pandas, white-cheeked gibbons


The Akron Zoo is nearing completion on its Wild Asia area, which is set to open in the spring as a home to Sumatran tigers, red pandas and white-cheeked gibbons.

During a recent media tour of the ongoing construction, zoo officials told cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer the area has been under construction since November 2018. It was developed at a cost of $9 million in conjunction with the $8 million Pride of Africa attraction which opened in the summer of 2019.

Chris Norman, the zoo’s director of capital projects and sustainability, said Wild Asia is being built on the site of what was previously called Tiger Valley, which was built in 1998 on a hillside overlooking Edgewood Avenue on Akron’s West Side.

Alongside the habitats for tigers, red pandas and white-cheeked gibbons – members of the ape family – the educational components of Wild Asia will focus on environmental topics.

“We’re talking about climate change and the human cause of it … [providing] examples of what people can do,” Norman said. “It’s more personal as far as responsibility.”

Wild Asia will also play a role in conservation by participating in species survival plans through its accreditation with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The two tigers and two white-cheeked gibbons are each coming to the zoo as a breeding pair. The three red pandas are all sisters, but there’s a potential that a male might be introduced as part of a breeding plan, Akron Zoo spokeswoman Elena Bell said.

Wild Asia was set to open this past summer, but there were some delays related to the pandemic. As a result of Ohio’s coronavirus health orders, the Akron Zoo was forced to temporarily close, but has reopened with about 25% regular occupancy. Guests must wear masks and reserve tickets for a specific time.

“There were also some delays with the animals coming from across the country,” Norman said. “Tigers and white-cheeked gibbons are vulnerable to COVID.”

The Wild Asia section is about three acres and begins next to Carousel Plaza, which is roughly at the center of the zoo.

During the media tour, a backhoe dug a stormwater retention basin, which will slowly release stormwater into Akron’s water system.

“It’s a mudhole now, but it’ll be really beautiful with landscaping,” Norman said.

The first habitat that guests will see is for the tigers. It is part of an amphitheater where guests may see educational programs or training sessions. It includes platforms and ramps, and tigers can jump onto the roof so visitors can see them through the skylight.

“There’s a chance you can get within a foot of a tiger,” Norman said.

Tigers are solitary, so each one will have a field of its own. They’ll likely switch areas so they can become familiar with each other’s scent.

The next habitat is Red Panda Plaza where the red panda sisters – Lulu, Coco and Penny – will be able to explore an HVAC-controlled cave, climbing features and a night yard.

The red pandas have already arrived at the zoo, and spokeswoman Bell said they each have their own personalities.

“Lulu is the brave one – she wants to be everybody’s friend,” Bell said. “Penny, she’s still not as sure, and Coco is the timid one.”

Across from the red pandas is the habitat for the white-cheeked gibbons, made out of A-frame wooden buildings that were part of the former Tiger Valley.

At the center of the habitat is a specially designed tree for the gibbons to climb and swing on vines and ropes to reach various platforms.

“It’s designed so there’s a chance that, no matter where you are, you can see eye-to-eye with them,” Norman said.

The Wild Asia project is wrapping up as the zoo is seeking a levy renewal and increase on the Nov. 3 ballot. The zoo’s last new levy was passed in 2000, and since then, “we redid the entire zoo,” Bell said.

“We typically have one big project per levy, based on feedback from the community,” she said. “We’ve heard that people want primates, so we got the white-cheeked gibbons… If this [levy] passes, we’ll begin the preliminary stages of planning to expand Pride of Africa, which might include giraffes.”

The issue on the ballot – Issue 47 – is a renew of 0.8 mills, with a 0.4-mill increase for 10 years. According to the zoo, the tax would cost the owner of a $100,000 home about $35 per year.

By Robin Goist, cleveland.com

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