Henry Doorly Zoo’s Asian Highlands exhibit offers stunning architecture, marquee animals

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.

Both species are new to the zoo. Takins, in particular, will stand out. These woolly animals, weighing between 500 and 800 pounds, look like they have “the head of a moose that looks like it’s been stung by a bee,” Pate said. And “they have horns like a wildebeest.” Their golden wool is said to be the source of the golden fleece in the mythological tale “Jason and the Argonauts.”

As visitors walk through the exhibit, they will experience architecture borrowed from the forests of the Himalayas, the grasslands of northern India and the boreal forests of northeastern China. The farther you go up the hill, the more evergreen trees you’ll notice.

Turn around and you’ll notice something else. This hillside, which was used only occasionally for special engagements over the years, has a stunning view of the zoo and, in particular, the Desert Dome.

“It’s a fantastic site,” Pate said. “When these trees are all leafed out, it’s incredible.”

The shady hillside is an expansion of the zoo in a way. This is the first formal development on this plot of land north of Simmons Aviary, and the animals are winter-hardy species that should give zoo visitors more active species to watch year-round.

Three more things are worth keeping an eye on when visiting the zoo in 2019.

First, the zoo is set to open a new guest services area at the site of the former Red Barn Park on April 19. It may not seem like a sexy new project, but the new concessions, restrooms, playground and nursing area should be a huge convenience for families with young children or kids who need a place to change before playing at the splash pad.

Second, as you walk toward the Asian Highlands, peek at the construction at the former site of Durham Bear Canyon. Soon, likely in 2020, the zoo plans to open a new sea lion exhibit at the site. Work is ongoing.

Lastly, as you enter the Asian Highlands, don’t ignore the first wave of enclosures that debuted last year. Red pandas, the first animal you see, soon will have a roommate. The zoo plans to add muntjacs, a small species of barking deer, to keep the red pandas company sometime this year.