Paignton Zoo has revealed new plans for its African habitat. The charity was given planning permission last year to reshape its existing savannah area, which includes elephant, giraffes and zebras. It has now revised this scheme, while keeping many exciting elements from the original design.

Executive Director Simon Tonge: “We looked at our plans again in the light of the economic and political uncertainty that came out of 2016. We had so many exciting ideas that the cost was beginning to rise steeply, so we’ve gone back to the drawing board and taken a more modest approach.

The project – now called Into Africa – is set to feature a walk-through vulture aviary, warthogs, banded mongoose and aardvark, and provide new spaces for species such as meerkats, elephant, giraffes and zebras.

Simon again: “Into Africa is not about big feature buildings, it’s about moving earth and adding rockwork to create an immersive experience. The aim is to improve the look and feel of its existing savannah habitat zone without carrying out too much intrusive building work or causing a huge upheaval for visitors.”

The Zoo has worked closely with Torquay-based Kay Elliott Architects to develop proposals for the new exhibit, which will open up a number of existing enclosures to make an expansive mixed-species exhibit based on the African savannah.

Simon explained: “There are several good reasons to do this. Many existing animal houses in this area need upgrading or replacement. The current arrangement features a lot of segregation, with few animals sharing a common paddock. At the moment routes are for both pedestrians and vehicles. Things are very linear; visitors aren’t immersed; there’s no sense of discovery.

“Our ambition is to create a harmonious panorama of African animals, landscapes and buildings. We want to reduce obvious boundaries. Visitors will be able to look out over attractive vistas without the clutter of traditional fencing.

“Our inspiration comes from the Matopos Hills in Matabeleland, Zimbabwe, where the Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust works with the Dambari Wildlife Trust. The Trust is based in Bulawayo and carries out conservation and education work in the Matopos Hills.”

The Matopos (or Matobo) Hills is a recognised World Heritage Site and a National Park. It has ancient cave paintings and some of the most extraordinary natural rock landscapes anywhere in the world – these will inspire a characterful backdrop to the exhibit. Curiously, there are geological similarities between Devon and the Matobo Hills: the unusual rock formations in the area echo the tors of Dartmoor and the red soils are reminiscent of South Devon.

“In addition, the last surviving populations of white rhinos and black rhinos in western Zimbabwe are found here. The indigenous art – Ndebele – will provide attractive visual theming for visitor information. Ndebele features strong primary colours – red and dark red, yellow to gold, sky blue, green and sometimes pink – and uses repeating geometric designs.”

Key species are Rothschild’s giraffe, Hartmann’s mountain zebra, black rhino and possibly – at some point in the future – white rhino. Stately Duchess, the Zoo’s African elephant, is part of the plan, with her welfare a priority. There are plans to add exciting new species like aardvark and vulture.

The wonder and surprise will be laced through with important messages about why biodiversity matters, about the importance of conservation advocacy – speaking up for wildlife – and how people must learn to live with wildlife – or end up living without…

Simon: “The illegal trade in rhino horn is frustrating and infuriating, because rhino horn has no more medicinal value than human hair – but the desire for it could wipe out these amazing creatures. Yet there’s a good news story here – the southern white rhino was on its knees as a species, now conservation has helped it recover. In 1900 there were fewer than 50 in the world, now there are thought to be around 20,000. Conservation can work.”

The plans for Into Africa are full of exciting, unexpected and inventive little touches. Covered viewing areas, bridges over animal enclosures, a “crashed vehicle” observation point. Changes in height will be used to good effect and ha-has employed to keep views open. At other points, views will be deliberately obscured and then revealed to make a more engaging experience.

Simon hopes the work will be completed by summer 2019. But the length of time is not because the charity is making huge changes: “We will be working mainly out of peak season, to avoid inconveniencing visitors. But this means working in winter, when bad weather could inconvenience us! It’s going to be a gradual change.”

The budget - in the region of £2 million – may be small compared to some attractions, but the Zoo is aiming to make the most of the existing landscape; new buildings will be small and functional. In addition, there will be a small change in the Zoo’s boundary and, while the cheetahs won’t come down onto the Savannah, they will have an extended paddock.

“My vision for Into Africa is a seamless blend of animals, landscape, materials, art and education.”

Quotes Zootastic Paignton! Quotes