Picturing Amur tigers and snow leopards in the wild won’t require as much imagination as before.

The two popular species at the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium are moving from the bland and boxy enclosures of the 42-year-old Cat Complex into naturalistic and expansive habitats at the zoo’s newest major exhibit.

The 8-acre, $22 million Asian Highlands will open at 10 a.m. Friday after two years of construction. The exhibit was designed to mimic a trek from the grasslands of northern India to the Himalayan cliffs of Nepal.

A 0.4-mile walk through the exhibit follows two bubbling streams in shade from trees older than the zoo itself. Lifelike rockwork and ancient ruins create a sense of place within the exhibit that floods the senses.

“The level of detail in this exhibit is greater than we’ve ever done before,” said the zoo’s director, Dennis Pate. “The more you come, the more you’ll see.”

Joining the two species of cats in the new area are sloth bears, takin and goral, plus a new concessions area and a misty forest trail for kids.

Last year, the zoo opened a portion of the exhibit, including enclosures for red pandas, white-naped cranes, Indian rhinos, tufted deer and Père David’s deer. A small species of deer called Reeves’ muntjac is now cohabitating with red pandas.

The trail leads up the hill from red pandas to Tiger Falls, the cornerstone of the Asian Highlands. Visitors will be transported to a temple ruin, which is adorned with multicolored prayer flags and includes sculptures of each animal species in the Asian Highlands.

Inside the tiger exhibit, cascading waterfalls form the headwaters of a stream that rushes throughout the area. The stream was built along the path of a decades-old limestone waterfall and stream that predate the zoo.

There’s abundant space to roam for lone Amur tiger Bronevik, who will someday be joined by a female mate.

“What a great place to raise cubs,” Pate said.

Amur tigers and snow leopards were the last two species living in the Cat Complex, which will close Friday. The zoo has not yet finalized plans on how to use the site, but redevelopment plans are being considered. The facility will be demolished this fall and will simply be a grassy patch until a new plan has been finalized at least a year from now.

Historically, the zoo has opened new exhibits on Memorial Day weekend, just in time for summer crowds. But Pate said he wanted to open the exhibit a week earlier to better manage the surge of visitors.

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Here’s a breakdown of what to expect at each component of the zoo’s newest exhibit:

AMUR TIGER

  • A 13,000-square-foot habitat with an up-close view of the tigers, both through stainless-steel netting and glass panes.
  • Room for several tigers, with plans to house females and their cubs.
  • A training amphitheater with stone seating for 100. Demonstrations will be held at 11:30 a.m. daily.

SNOW LEOPARD

  • A jagged cliff face with caves and a grassy area below, mimicking a subalpine ecosystem.
  • The lone leopard in the 3,094-square-foot habitat will soon be joined by a mother and her newborn cub.
  • Training demonstrations will be held at 1:30 p.m. daily.
  • It’s the highest point of the Asian Highlands, 35 feet higher than the entrance to the exhibit.

SLOTH BEAR

  • The zoo’s sloth bears are a female from Toledo, Ohio, and a male from Leipzig, Germany, named Bodo.
  • Bodo “is the superstar,” Pate said. “He came out like he’s been here for years.”
  • Stone foundation ruins form a backdrop for a training demonstration area under a shelter structure.
  • Sloth bears may nest in hollowed-out logs in the grassy habitat.

TAKIN/GORAL

  • A rocky gully with a shady basin below and a lush yard atop.
  • Home to 900-pound goat antelopes called Sichuan takin that are expert cliff climbers.
  • Sheep-size Chinese gorals like to hide in the shadows of the cliff face.

FOGGY FOREST

  • Misty mulch yard with boulders for kids to hunt for sculptures of small animals found in Asia, including monal pheasant, masked civet, Himalayan pikas, Himalayan marmot, Bengal monitor and Chinese pangolin.
  • Handicapped-accessible concrete path.
  • Parents can let their kids loose in the fenced-in area.

YETI CAMP

  • Concession area with restrooms, seating for 50, a small gift shop cart and a food truck menu of new-to-the-zoo food such as crab rangoon, fried rice and dumplings called momos.

OTHER EXHIBITS THAT OPENED IN 2018

  • Red pandas, white-naped cranes, Indian rhinos, tufted deer and Père David’s deer (extinct in the wild).
  • Reeves’ muntjac have been added to the red panda display, new for 2019.

Chris Peters covers the Henry Doorly Zoo and writes feature stories for The World Herald's Living section. Follow him on Twitter @_ChrisPeters. Phone: 402-444-1734.

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