The road to Asia is nearly paved.
The Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium is putting the finishing touches on its 8-acre, $22 million Asian Highlands exhibit, set to open May 17.
The zoo opened a portion of the exhibit in 2018, but the biggest and best is coming this year.
Two misty mountain trails will wind up a previously undeveloped hillside past sloth bears and goat antelopes. Trails will run alongside twin streams to brand-new habitats for snow leopards and Amur tigers at the apex of the hill.
There, atop it all, visitors may truly feel transported to a new place. Recent projects at the zoo strive to immerse visitors in an animal’s wild habitat, but the Asian Highlands sets a new standard, particularly at the temple of the tiger.
Carved and stained concrete stonework imitates weathered mossy boulders. A temple with carvings of red pandas, rhinos and each of the animals in the area looks as if it was unearthed from centuries ago. Even the plastic infographics about the animals appear as rusted metal signs.
Every detail is carefully curated, creating an experience that truly captures your imagination.
“I haven’t seen anything in another zoo that looks like this,” Dennis Pate, zoo CEO and executive director, said during a tour Friday. “Even the landscape changes as you go up the tree line.”
About a third of the exhibit opened last year. That portion included red pandas, Indian rhinos, Père David’s deer, white-naped cranes and tufted deer.
Currently, that section of the exhibit ends where train tracks bisect the exhibit at two bridges. Compared with the pieces farther up the hill, the entry to the exhibit is tame.
Underneath one bridge, visitors will come upon sloth bears, which will live in a large yard with artificial trees to climb. Sloth bears are returning to the zoo for the first time in 45 years.
Immediately, visitors will notice that each of these habitats appears airy and open, with a range of viewing angles.
“I think we underestimated the popularity of (the African Grasslands exhibit) and we didn’t build enough viewing areas,” Pate said. “That was a real emphasis this time.”
Next is a misty forest trail for young kids to run around and discover a handful of mammal and bird sculptures. The area is called Foggy Forest.
Winding farther up the trail, visitors will reach the zenith of the exhibit, Amur tigers. A pair of tigers, or perhaps a mother with her cubs, will wander a ruin-filled hillside, play in a waterfall and swim in a 3-foot-deep pond. At one end of the enclosure is a stone-seating amphitheater where zookeepers will demonstrate animals’ trained behaviors.
As you begin your descent down the hill, you next stop will find snow leopards running and jumping on a rocky cliff. The exhibit has a stunning jagged backdrop.
Families can catch their breath, use a restroom or grab a bite to eat at an area called Yeti Camp, just downhill from the snow leopards. The area includes bench seating and a handful of tables plus a food truck.
One of the most surprising elements of the exhibit for zoo visitors might be the goat antelopes, up next. Sichuan takin and Chinese goral will live in a rocky river valley complete with a hill for rock hopping, an overhanging cliff and a channel for the cut-through stream.