The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium will have an answer this week to the question asked most often by visitors: When will the giraffes and zebras return?

The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium will have an answer this week to the question asked most often by visitors: When will the giraffes and zebras return?

"That's certainly the question I think all of us have answered the most since 2006," said Jennifer Wilson, director of communications for the zoo.

The zoo said a temporary goodbye to giraffes and zebras in 2006, when the Asia Quest exhibit replaced their original home.

It will once again have spaces for those iconic animals when the new Heart of Africa region opened Thursday, May 22.

The region's development cost about $30.4 million, which was raised through the zoo's Franklin County tax levy and private donations.

Wilson said the region fits into the zoo's plan to represent the entire world within its facility, which sits just west of the city of Powell in Delaware County. Construction on the site, located in the northeast corner of the zoo, began in September 2012 after years of planning.

"We're not representing all areas of the world yet, but we're getting closer," she said.

Wilson said the zoo still hopes to add a region focusing on the animals and culture of Central and South America. She said she could not give an estimate of when work on that region could begin because the defeat of the zoo's replacement levy earlier this month has left some of the nonprofit facility's planning "up in the air."

"In the future, we certainly would want to be inclusive of all areas," she said.

In total, Heart of Africa will feature 120 animals representing 20 species, including cheetahs, lions, ostriches and wildebeests. Visitors also will get a chance to learn about lesser-known animals such as the vervet monkey, greater kudu (a species of woodland antelope) and the east African crowned crane.

The region will continue the trend of allowing visitors to get up close and personal with exotic animals.

"Our last several regions have been an immersive experience," Wilson said. "We want guests to feel like they're visiting that region."

During their visit to Heart of Africa, guests will be able to ride camels for a $7 fee, available all day; feed giraffes for a $3 fee at five times throughout the day; and view lions from the cockpit of a grounded Beechcraft Model 18 airplane at no additional cost.

The plane, which was installed by crane in February, will sit halfway in the lions' habitat and halfway in the visitors' section. Guests will be able to board the plane from the rear and walk safely toward the lions.

Wilson said one wing of the plane will be air conditioned in the summer, encouraging lions to sit on it so zoo patrons get the closest possible view.

The region also will feature a 140-seat, buffet-style restaurant that will be enclosed on three sides.

"It will have some food that's representative of the region as well as (standard fare)," Wilson said.

At 43 acres, Heart of Africa will be the largest region of the zoo. While most of the focus will be on the new exhibits, zoo officials also chose to incorporate a piece of Delaware County history.

The Bovee School, a 19th-century Liberty Township schoolhouse located east of the zoo's water tower, will be part of the region.

Wilson said the building will not be open to visitors but will serve as a stage backdrop.