Bronx, NY – April 28, 2016 – Sunday, May 1, 2016 marks 75 years since the opening of the African Plains exhibit at WCS’s (Wildlife Conservation Society) Bronx Zoo.

The exhibit marked the first time the zoo exhibited animals in realistic, natural settings, similar to how they might appear in the wild.

The exhibit design was the vision of Fairfield Osborn, New York Zoological Society (now WCS) President.  A leading conservationist of the period, Osborn saw the African Plains exhibit as an educational tool for making the public aware of the need to protect not only wildlife but also the places in which they lived.

Although some of the species in the exhibit have changed over time, the groundbreaking exhibit concept has remained. The naturalistic, bar-less exhibits are home to both predator and prey species separated only by a series of hidden moats, so that it appears they share the same space. The African Plains was the first exhibit at the Bronx Zoo to highlight species by geography rather than taxonomy. Today, many of the Bronx Zoo exhibits are designed with this concept in mind – focusing on the ecological relationships among animals and their natural environments.

Funding for the construction of the African Plains came from an anonymous benefactor later revealed to be department store owner Marshall Field. The cost of construction was $110,000, and it was planned, designed, and completed in just 18 months.

At the time of its opening, the African Plains featured several African species, including zebras, elands, and other ungulates; lions; warthogs; and several species of birds.  Many of these species still roam the exhibit space today. New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and Parks Commissioner Robert Moses spoke at the opening ceremonies along with Fairfield Osborn, and CBS News journalists reported on the event from inside a wooden crate placed inside the lion exhibit.

The first Sunday following the opening, the Bronx Zoo drew record crowds. Almost 85,000 made their way to the zoo to observe the wildlife roaming the recreated African Savanna in the Bronx. At the time, it was the largest single-day attendance since the Bronx Zoo’s opening in 1899. 

Today, nearly two million people annually visit the Bronx Zoo.  The African Plains and the surrounding area are now home to lions, Grevy’s zebras, nyala, Thomson’s gazelles, spotted hyenas, African wild dogs, giraffes, and more. WCS continues the work and vision of Fairfield Osborn and his predecessors not only by instilling a sense of awe and inspiration those who visit, but also through education about the conservation needs of animals where they live and the habitats that support them.

WCS has grown into one of the world’s most predominant conservation organizations. It works in Africa where these animals range, and in more than 60 countries and all the world’s oceans to save wildlife and wild places.

Read the Wild View Blog from WCS Archivist Madeleine Thompson here: