Soon enough, snow leopards and Amur tigers will look down over the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium from a perch at the head of a mountain stream. In the meantime, while construction crews continue their work, zoogoers can get a glimpse of the Omaha zoo’s next grand project.

Part of the Asian Highlands, an 8-acre, $22 million project, opens to the public Thursday. It’s an immersion exhibit that mimics habitats found in the Himalayas, northern Indian grasslands and northeastern Chinese boreal forests.

Half the species intended for the final exhibit are on display, but more than two-thirds of the square footage is yet to come, including some of the area’s most extensive components.

Visitors can now see red pandas, Indian rhinos, white-naped cranes, tufted deer and Père David’s deer, a species extinct in the wild and found in only a handful of zoos. Next year, grandiose habitats for Amur tigers, snow leopards, sloth bears, takin (big goat-antelopes) and goral (small goat-antelopes) will complete the exhibit.

The zoo chose to open part of the exhibit now rather than wait to open it all at once.

“If it’s done, why not open it?” said zoo director Dennis Pate.

The exhibit is believed to be the largest of its kind in North America, Pate said. One of the biggest reasons the zoo management chose this project is because the species included thrive in Nebraska’s cold winters.

“We were looking to have animals that were well-adapted to living outside maybe not 365 days a year, but certainly 300 or 320 days a year,” Pate said. “They’re all very cold-hardy animals, so that was part of it, wanting to bring more year-round exhibits for people to see.”

Unlike other recent developments at the zoo, no exhibits had to close to make room for the Asian Highlands. It was built on a previously undeveloped hillside overrun by prairie dogs where Dinosaurs Alive was hosted in 2013.

To find the new exhibit, follow the zoo’s south path beyond the sea lion pool or the north path beyond the aviary and you’ll find a gateway modeled after ancient Asian ruins.

When building the exhibit, contractors converted the northern pathway near the aviary into a tram-only path to make navigation simpler.

The first two animals you’ll see are red pandas to your right and Indian rhinos to your left.

Red pandas will lounge in the shade or on artificially cooled tree limbs. Rhinos share a large lawn, complete with mud wallows, with Père David’s deer, which went extinct in the wild almost a century ago.

Unlike the zoo’s massive African Grasslands exhibit, where it took months to get some animals to intermix, the rhinos and deer have been getting along swimmingly in the new area since day one. Watching the two species coexist makes it even easier to get lost in the illusion.

“When you see these animals in the displays we’ve created for them, you get a whole different feel for the animals,” Pate said. “They’re in some sort of natural area. It helps with the learning, it helps with the appreciation and, frankly, it even helps with the respect and awe people have when you see these animals.”

The exhibit currently stops at the train tracks. The zoo is targeting May 1, 2019, to open the remainder, which also includes two train underpasses, a mist forest trail for kids, a yeti camp concessions stand and restrooms, in addition to the five species.

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