The zoo's new Elephant Odyssey exhibit has a 137,000-gallon pool and 2-1/2 acres of roaming area

For Ranchipur and Cha-Cha, two Asian elephants who had been longtime residents at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park, the May 22 VIP party honoring their move to the zoo’s new Elephant Odyssey exhibit had them stepping out in style – wading into a 137,000-gallon pool and, for Ranchipur, dipping long grass into the water for a yummy snack. But surrounding the 2 1/2-acre area they and six other elephants will roam are five more acres featuring more than 35 species of animals whose origins lie in ancestors from the Pleistocene epoch.

So visitors who pose next to a model of a saber-toothed tiger can then see its cousin, the jaguar, nearby. And for the first time in 60 years at the San Diego Zoo, the California condor flies again, a bird saved from extinction through the San Diego Zoo’s recovery program.

How did the four-year, $45 million wildlife paradise come to be? “It has been proven through DNA science that the Columbia mammoth of 12,000 years ago was a direct relative of the Asian elephant we have today,” Elephant Odyssey ambassador Rick Schwartz tells PEOPLE Pets. “So we looked at this as an opportunity to talk about extinction and then move to the next step and talk about the current state of affairs for similar animals around the world.”

In order to do that, the zoo partnered with Botswana-based Elephants Without Borders for its Project Elephant Footprint campaign, which encourages people to adopt the footprint of one of three elephants being tracked in Africa to study their migration patterns. Those who sign up receive biweekly blogs from the field and regular movement updates with maps.

Many see the exhibit’s partnership with Project Elephant Footprint as a great way to engage the public in the plight of these elephants. “At Elephant Odyssey, not only are you transported 12,000 years ago to see the California landscape where woolly mammoths existed,” says Dr. Michael Chase, the director of Elephants Without Borders, “you are set on a path to ensure that the current generation of elephants won’t follow in the footsteps of those mammoths.”

Adds Schwartz: “This is the first step for us as a zoo and a society to think globally and act globally because our guests can get involved.”

As for Ranchipur, Cha-Cha and the other elephants living at the exhibit, they’re obviously enjoying their new digs. “They are exercising constantly, walking, it is a challenge to get their food, so they are mimicking what elephants do in the wild,” says Chase. “It’s fantastic.”