The Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium is experiencing a period of rejuvenation, adding new exhibits and exciting species each year.

Until now, rejuvenation has meant taking old exhibits and replacing them with new ones. But this year, the zoo is breaking new ground.

On Thursday, the Omaha zoo will open the first phase of Asian Highlands, an 8-acre, $22 million exhibit on a previously undeveloped hillside on the northern end of the grounds.

The shady hillside has hosted little more than prairie dogs and the occasional special engagement over the years. So in a way, the zoo is expanding its borders.

The project is split into two phases, with the latter set for a spring 2019 opening. A pathway will lead visitors past a downhill stream through replicated ruins modeled after those found in the forests of the Himalayas, the grasslands of northern India and the boreal forests of northeastern China.

Visitors will find red pandas lounging in temperature-controlled trees. They’ll see Indian rhinos mingling with Père David’s deer. And they’ll meet white-naped cranes and vampire-fanged tufted deer.

The exhibit is full of animals that thrive in winter, when many zoo animals stay inside.

“A lot of people like to come to the zoo when it’s not quite so busy,” zoo Director Dennis Pate said. “They’re going to have some really cool animals to see when it’s not so busy here because they’ll be outside.”

Next year, the exhibit will continue north of the zoo’s train tracks to extensive new habitats for Amur tigers, snow leopards, sloth bears and two species of goat antelopes — takins and gorals. In the center of it all, the zoo is planning to build a trail for kids — and a food truck — in an area nicknamed Yeti Camp.

“We’re going to be able to bring people and tigers much closer together than we have been in the past, and not through cage kind of views. It will be glass views or moated views,” Pate said. “Even snow leopards will have probably 10 times more space than they had before.”

The exhibit covers about one-third the acreage of the 2016 record-breaking African Grasslands exhibit. It adheres to the same philosophy — immersion in a wild-like exhibit, both from the animal and the visitor perspective — but with a few tinkers to the model.

“We needed bigger viewing areas,” Pate said. “On most days it works pretty well, but on the 17,000-person days, we recognized that they needed to get bigger.”

The gateway to the Asian Highlands is just north of Simmons Aviary, beyond Sue’s Carousel but not quite to the Owen Sea Lion Pavilion. The exhibit debuts Thursday when the zoo opens at 9 a.m.

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