A tropical biodome that recreates the atmosphere of Congo and provides a sanctuary for endangered species is to be built at the UK's most popular zoo.
The Heart of Africa project at Chester Zoo is part of a £225m redevelopment which will also include a 90-bed themed hotel and a conservation college.
The entire scheme, entitled "Natural Vision" will be developed over 15 years and is expected to establish the zoo as Europe's largest conservation, animal and leisure attraction.
The biodome will be 34 metres high, bigger than the Eden project at 16,000 square feet, and will simulate the natural African rainforest habitats.
It will include a series of connected domes which can be explored through a jungle canopy. An interactive water ride will provide extensive views of the animal enclosures and themed retail and dining facilities will be incorporated. It will be home to a band of gorillas, a large troop of chimpanzees, okapi (rare giraffe-like creatures), birds, amphibians, reptiles, fishes, and invertebrates. Plants will be transferred from Congo and temperatures kept between 25C and 30C with around 80 per cent humidity.
Visitors will explore the exhibits in a variety of ways including treetop elevated walkways and boat rides. There are also future plans to create an African Savannah Zone which will include an underwater hippopotamus viewing area, similar to the popular attraction in Toledo Zoo, in Ohio.
Detailed plans for the Heart of Africa biodome together with expansion of the main entrance and car park have been submitted to Cheshire West and Chester Council. This planning application includes detailed drawings for the first phase showing the project as the largest free-standing roof structure in Europe.
Alasdair McNee, corporate director at the zoo, said he expected the project to catapult Chester into one of the top five zoos in the world. Currently it is the only UK zoo which ranks in the top six in Europe.
He said: "This is a culmination of many years of planning and is both economic and mission-related. We want to help bring in tourists to the North-west and we're also very keen to continue with our ethos of educating visitors.
"This will be a wonderful opportunity for people to see animals in their natural habitat rather than simply in an enclosure at a zoo.
"There will be some challenges, as plants are not quite as tolerant as animals but we are working with some of the best engineers."
Natural Vision is projected to increase zoo visitor numbers from the current 1.3 million visits per year towards 1.6 million visits a year by 2013 and to 2 million by 2019.
It is expected The Heart of Africa will be open to visitors from mid-2014.
The zoo, which is home to 7,000 animals and 400 species, currently occupies 50 hectares of land but owns a further 200. The completed Natural Vision project will cover 80 hectares including new access roads and parking.
The realm of the Red Ape (an expansion of the orang utan exhibit ) and Beginnings (redevelopment of the main entrance) which opened in 2007 both form part of the "Natural Vision" project.