Werribee Open Range Zoo has unveiled plans for an $83.5 million expansion to capitalise on Wyndham’s burgeoning tourism precinct.

The proposed expansion, which is expected to be rolled out in several stages up until 2024, will focus on providing immersive experiences for visitors and, if funded, will feature a mammoth 20-hectare elephant sanctuary that will house the elephants currently residing at Melbourne Zoo.

Other hallmarks of the project include:

•An expanded Rhino Retreat that will allow keepers to breed on-site and give visitors the chance to meet Rhinos up close;

•A new on-foot safari experience that connects all the different animal regions and will include a low-level suspension bridge and treetop suspension bridge towering 10 metres above the Werribee River;

•A high-wire gondola to connect trails on both sides of the river and give visitors unique views of the zoo grounds;

•An extension adjacent to the African savannah that will provide an open landscape for American bison and a mixed collection of northern hemisphere animals;

•A bigger Woodlands safari adventure, with one of the world’s biggest meerkat exhibits for visitors to watch while they’re waiting for their safari bus;

•Enlarging the existing lion habitats to fit two lion prides, which visitors will be able to see both on foot and through the bus safari; and

•A Watering Hole focused specifically on breeding for two endangered species (cheetahs and African wild dogs) and a section that includes a 5000-person lawn with a re-oriented stage for events and cafe.

The master plan roll-out – which would take the zoo’s footprint from less than half of its 250-hectare site to about 80 per cent – is largely dependent on state government funding, with the government allocating $1 million for planning to date.

Zoo director Glen Holland said the expansion plan will mean increased visitation and tourism, which in turn would help boost the zoo’s conservation efforts. It would also allow the zoo to double its existing staff of about 170.

The zoo’s visitor numbers have doubled in the past five years to 600,000 visitors each financial year. Of that, 21 per cent of visitors are Wyndham residents, more than 50 per cent are from Victoria, six per cent are interstate and two per cent are international.

“The challenge is, if the [visitor numbers] double again, we don’t have the footprint, we don’t have new experiences … we have to expand, we have the space. We’re the number one tourism destination in the west and so all of this combined just says you’ve got to expand.

“In terms of the future, it’s about how we use the 250 hectares and move from two key experiences – the walking safari and the bus – and head towards five or six of those to utilise the site, to spread the capacity and ensure our visitors are getting the best day out.

“Our brand is very much about open range, and the theming is largely African. It’s about herds, mobs, flocks – numbers of animals, instead of two of this and two of that – on large, open expanses.”

The master plan is one part of an overall shake-up of zoo operations, with the zoo also set to introduce an immersive “Sunset Safari” experience from November that will give visitors a traditional night-time African safari experience and focus on African food, culture, and an evening animal safari.

Meanwhile, the zoo is currently expanding on its Australia wildlife offer to ensure that visitors get to see kangaroos and koalas.