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The Houston Zoo celebrated the grand opening of the Gorilla exhibit on Friday, May 22.   This highly-anticipated, state-of-the-art new habitat connects visitors to the lush forests of Africa in a full-sensory experience, and brings gorillas back to Houston after an 11-year absence.

The first stop on the journey through this extraordinary new exhibit is the Arrival Building. After walking through the beautiful maple doors, guests enter an intricately detailed room with floor-to-ceiling windows that look out onto the gorilla meadow. Here is the first chance to see a family of western lowland gorillas roam vast green fields or climb large fallen trees. This gorilla group consists of silverback Zuri (age 31), Holli (25), their daughter Sufi (13), and Binti (40). As the gorillas explore their new home, guests might also catch one of them snacking on a banana tree – yes the whole tree! Their habitat was landscaped with the apes’ favorite foods in mind.

There’s another animal just outside the Arrival Building windows as well. There is much talk about the gorillas in Houston, but we must not forget their habitat neighbors, the red river hogs. Here is the best view of these fascinating creatures. Though gorillas and red river hogs share the same forest lands in Africa, this is truly a unique experience as you won’t see them together in a shared habitat in any other zoo. The three red river hogs making their home at the Houston Zoo may be seen rooting in the mud wallow or cavorting through the riverbed.

Upon exiting tGorilla Family Outside-0004-2555he Arrival Building, the Forest Trail engulfs trekkers with bamboo, philodendron and large, beautiful oak trees. Dappled light through the trees and the sounds of Africa set the scene for the trail. Gorillas can be seen as guests walk through the treetops on this elevated boardwalk and arrive at The Gathering Tent, where they can hear plunging waterfalls running beneath them.

As the expedition continues, pillars donned with African artwork guide guests along the pathway to the Chevron Lookout. From here they may see gorillas exploring through 100-year-old oak trees and abundant greenery. At this point, visitors find the Gorilla Gathering Pool, a rocky landscaped pool that provides the apes a great place to cool off. This awe-inspiring view of these animals in such an incredibly naturalistic habitat will instill an appreciation of these species unlike ever before. From here, high in the trees, guests can also see The Nau Family Gorilla Treehouse, a beautiful and unique new venue for private dinners and company meetings.

Up ahead, a 20-foot waterfall cascades down the mountainous terrain. Swirling mists and twisting vines surround guests as they continue around the corner through a tunnel of the rocky cliffs. Here, another set of magnificent maple doors leads into the final leg of the gorilla journey – The Robert and Janice McNair Foundation Great Ape Gallery, where a bachelor group of gorillas may be seen in their indoor facility. The Robert R. and Kay M. Onstead Foundation Day Room is equipped with platforms and oversized ropes for the gorillas to play, interact with one another, and get a great view of the visitors. The bachelor group of male gorillas staring back includes Chaka (age 30), Mike (23) and Ajari (14). Guests might spot the zookeepers engaging with the gorillas in one of their daily training sessions.

As the Great Ape Gallery ends the journey to see gorillas and red river hogs, it begins the trek to see chimpanzees, white rhinos and giraffes.

The return of gorillas to the Houston Zoo was a years-long undertaking and involved countless hours of planning. “We hope guests visit the gorillas at the Houston Zoo often to witness the beauty of this incredible species, and that the experiences they have inspire them to care about these and all animals in the wild,” said Deborah Cannon, Houston Zoo CEO and president.

The endangered western lowland gorilla, though formidable and intelligent, faces many threats in their wild habitat.  Their native habitat in central and west Africa is shrinking largely due to the expansion of mining and agriculture in the area. The already-dwindling population faces the added threat of illegal hunting.

As one of man’s closest relatives in the animal kingdom, their highly social nature and intelligence make them prime ambassadors to educate our community about the threats faced by all gorillas and the Houston Zoo partnerships focused on saving these incredible animals. Zoo staff works in tandem with the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project (MGVP) to improve the health of remaining gorilla populations through improved human health for conservation workers and rangers as well as rural communities. Active health programs and education are fostering a better understanding of and appreciation for the natural world for those living near these endangered apes. Zoo staff members also work with the education program Conservation Heritage Turambe in Rwanda, and the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation (GRACE) Center in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Every time someone visits the Houston Zoo they help save animals in the wild. A portion of admissions and memberships goes toward protecting endangered species like these majestic and powerful apes.

Set in a 55-acre lush tropical landscape, the Zoo is home to more than 6,000 exotic animals representing more than 800 species.  The Houston Zoo is located at 6200 Hermann Park Drive in beautiful Hermann Park which is only a short drive away from Pearland.  The Zoo is open daily at 9 a.m. and closed Christmas Day. HoustonZoo.org

Photo credit Houston Zoo/Stephanie Adams