San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance is expanding its mission to help all life thrive by cultivating some of its most important allies — the next generation. Opening in February 2022, the 3.2-acre Denny Sanford Wildlife Explorers Basecamp at the San Diego Zoo will be a place where guests and their families can enjoy an experience that inspires empathy for all wildlife.
“The new and innovative elements of Wildlife Explorers Basecamp encourage our explorers to gain a better understanding of their role in the natural world by getting a glimpse of life from the wildlife’s point of view,” said Paul A. Baribault, president and chief executive officer of San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. “It’s a fun, accessible and meaningful way to discover how we’re all connected, and that the health of the smallest members of the wildlife community is inextricably linked to our own human health.”
“The name reflects the underlying goal of the area,” said Shawn Dixon, chief operating officer of San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. “We are calling it a Basecamp because it’s designed to serve as a launch pad for budding conservationists of all ages to be inspired to care for and protect the future of our planet.”
Built on the site of the former Children’s Zoo, Wildlife Explorers Basecamp is designed to appeal to a broader audience, while maintaining its place in the hearts of young explorers. The area blends innovation and immersive technology with opportunities to check out extraordinary species — ranging from leafcutter ants and orb weaver spiders to prairie dogs and sloths — all designed to introduce the next generation to the natural world with an eye toward the future.
Wildlife Explorers Basecamp is divided into four types of habitats and features the wildlife that live in these areas — Rainforest, Wild Woods, Marsh Meadows and Desert Dunes. Included throughout the space will be wildlife experiences to bring audiences up close to nature with interactive play opportunities, oversized species-themed sculptures and a floating, seven-foot-high stone globe representing the Earth and how we are all connected.
The common element underscoring the play and learning opportunities at Basecamp is nurturing the future caretakers of the planet. The experience uses sensory elements to create a multifaceted engagement approach, with microscopes and touch screens, plus animation and dynamic lighting installations.
The Rainforest area of Basecamp is centered around the 10,000-square-foot McKinney Family Spineless Marvels building. It features arachnids, crustaceans and insects, including free-flying butterflies and moths, a two-story leafcutter ant experience, a coconut crab habitat and a world of spiders, scorpions, stick insects, katydids, beetles, mantises and more. The pollinator experience pairs a real-life beehive with a larger-than-life honeycomb, inviting young guests to become the bee. Within this immersive space, they will also learn about the fascinating lives of our own native bees and other pollinators like African flower beetles and butterflies.
A cool rainforest canopy immerses guests in the environment, as they view a host of Rady Wildlife Ambassador animals, such as a two-toed sloth or a prehensile-tailed porcupine. The two-story Rady Ambassadors Headquarters building will host habitats for most of the Zoo’s wildlife ambassadors.
Wild Woods is an area for wildlife species including coatis and squirrel monkeys. While crossing The Conrad Prebys Foundation Discovery Bridge, guests immediately encounter an “ancient oak tree” that is more than 20 feet tall. It is built for kids to climb and provides a parallel-play experience because it is adjacent to the squirrel monkey habitat. This dynamic nature-play tree structure offers multiple points of access for guests — from a suspension bridge and net tunnel to a spiral staircase in the middle. Water-play extends into this woodland-themed area, with a waterfall grotto and splash pad, water jets and a stream — plus, a bluff area with a boulder scramble at the slide for exploration.
Marsh Meadows is designed with an array of plant life, strategically designed to attract native bird species, butterflies and bees. There is also the two-story Art and Danielle Engel Cool Critters building that offers 7,000 square feet of immersive environments, digital media and learning opportunities. The wildlife here includes snakes, amphibians, crocodilians, turtles and lizards, including endangered Fijian iguanas. It also showcases the of the kind of partnerships San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance forges with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), Nature Fiji and the National Trust of Fiji, to preserve delicate ecosystems and build successful breeding colonies of Fijian iguanas. Just outside, a watery habitat is designed to immerse guests — seemingly literally — as they make their way to underwater viewing areas featuring reptiles and fish.
The Desert Dunes section of Wildlife Explorers Basecamp features animals found in the Southwest United States — including fennec foxes, prairie dogs and burrowing owls, a key species for the Alliance. A dry desert wash themed area takes center stage in this part of Wildlife Explorers Basecamp, with boulder play opportunities for climbing, scrambling, hopping and more. Hidden reptile sculptures and petroglyphs can be found among the rocks and cool caves that offer shaded areas for guests to beat the heat, like their desert species counterparts.
“We want to play a role in building future conservationists by creating lasting memories that inspire empathy and curiosity; encourage innovation, collaboration, resilience and optimism; and shine a light on the interconnectedness of the health of wildlife, people and the environment they share,” said Nadine Lamberski, DVM, chief conservation and wildlife health officer at San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance.
To achieve this, San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance ensured the habitat design was rooted in research.
“We consulted with child development experts early in the design process, who said if you want future generations to really have empathy for wildlife, they need to see the world from the animals’ perspective,” added Dixon. “Wildlife Explorers Basecamp is an engaging, hands-on adventure, seeding hope and optimism, where wildlife and guests can be active and engaged.