One of the most significant upgrades in many years to Winnipeg's Assiniboine Park Zoo has opened.

The International Polar Bear Conservation Centre (IPBCC) was unveiled on Monday. The $4.5-million centre will provide a home for orphaned, injured or problem polar bears.

The zoo has been without a polar bear since its long-time resident, Debby, died in 2008 at age 42. The zoo was not able to get another polar bear because its enclosure no longer met provincial standards.

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The Journey to Churchill exhibit is scheduled for completion in 2013. (Josiane Pelosse/CBC)

Officials first announced the IPBCC in December 2009 and held a "snow-turning" with artificial flakes to mark the start of construction at the site in June 2010.

The IPBCC will:

  • Support and facilitate zoo-based research efforts that contribute to the survival of polar bears in the wild.
  • Develop and distribute programs and materials that educate the public about polar bears, increase public awareness of the fragile arctic ecosystem, and motivate people to help conserve polar bears by cutting their carbon footprint.

In addition to the IPBCC, the zoo is also developing a $26-million Journey to Churchill exhibit.

It will be 20 times larger than the enclosure that housed Debby and will include underwater and above-ground viewing opportunities to enable visitors to come face to face with up to six bears.

The exhibit will also feature caribou, arctic fox, snowy owls and musk oxen.

Scheduled for completion in 2013, the exhibit will also feature a variety of interactive elements, including an aurora borealis 360-degree theatre; motorized polar bear tundra tours; a rooftop Tundra Garden; and a new restaurant, gift shop and children's play area.