Cheyenne Mountain Zoo visitors photograph elephants in their new barn.

Colorado Springs’ zoo in the mountains has reached its fundraising goal of $13.5 million for its biggest capital improvement project in the zoo’s history.

Cheyenne Mountain Zoo officials announced Thursday that the Encounter Africa exhibit is a go, now fully funded. Already, the zoo’s African elephants have a new barn; and the African lions and black rhinos will get new digs too.

The entire project is expected to be complete in 2013.

Encounter Africa will include a new plaza area featuring a traditional African tent for educational programs and events, four full-size African elephant sculptures and an amphitheater that will allow guests to see elephant training, enrichment and husbandry. The project also will include mud wallows and a shallow pool for the endangered black rhinoceros and a new exhibit for the African lions featuring upper and lower viewing areas and heated rocks.

And, the exhibits will be designed so that visitors can have a closer look at the animals. Each year, more than 500,000 people visit the zoo.

The zoo launched its fundraising efforts in 2009. The capital campaign was led by co-chairs Scott Blackmun, U.S. Olympic Committee CEO, and Wendel Torres, of Beckrich Construction.

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Four private donors jump-started the capital campaign with $6 million. And then, the campaign culminated with major gifts from The Anschutz Foundation in Denver and El Pomar Foundation in Colorado Springs. El Pomar put in $1.5 million, which included $500,000 from the Ackerman Fund and $300,000 from the Hambrick Fund.

“Without these final gifts from El Pomar and The Anschutz Foundation, as well as the other private donations and grants we received, Encounter Africa would not be a reality,” Blackmun said. “Because of their support, millions of people will experience the wonder and awe of wildlife in spectacular habitats in the years to come.”

The elephant exhibit, for example, was one of the zoo’s oldest buildings, built in the early 1950s.

Construction of the project got started last year with little fanfare as construction crews completed the first phase of the project – the elephant barn. The new barn is several times the size of the current barn and gives the elephants more space for training.

The zoo’s herd of four female elephants moved into their new barn last fall. Because the area surrounding the new barn is a construction zone, the elephants are currently off exhibit to the general public until the second phase is complete this fall.

“The trustees of El Pomar are impressed with the zoo’s efforts to continually improve, expand and innovate,” said William J. Hybl, El Pomar Foundation chairman and CEO. “This campaign is evidence of that desire to take a treasured community asset and make it even better. As a longstanding partner with the zoo, we are pleased to take a leading role in bringing the Encounter Africa exhibit to life.”

Cheyenne Mountain Zoo opened in 1926. Unlike most zoos, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo doesn’t receive any tax support, said Bob Chastain, zoo president and CEO.

“So we rely on the generosity of the community to help us grow,” he said. “We feel incredibly fortunate to be a part of such a tight-knit community that supports our mission and recognizes the value we provide.”