Asian Highlands will transport Zoo guests on an immersive journey through Asia, ranging from the grasslands of Northern India, though the Himalayan Mountains, to the boreal forests of northeastern China. Set on an undeveloped eight acres inside Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, Asian Highlands is a $20 million project. This is a total immersion exhibit set along the main path just north of the Aviary. Guests will encounter a unique landscape and diverse collection of animals including red panda, white-naped crane, sloth bear, Amur tiger, snow leopard, takin, goral, Indian rhino, tufted deer and Pere David’s deer. Most of the listed species are very cold tolerant and will be available for viewing year-round.
Expected completion of the Indian rhino, Pere David’s deer, crane, red panda and tufted deer areas is summer 2018. Expected completion of the sloth bear, tiger, snow leopard, takin, Yeti Camp and Kid’s Discovery Trail is summer 2019.
This symbolic entrance is a replica of an upper Himalayan temple ruin. It will serve as the exhibit entrance.
Red Panda, Crane & Tufted Deer
The journey begins along the southern foothills of the Himalayan Range in a high-altitude temperate forest with firs, deciduous hardwoods, rhododendrons and bamboo dotting the landscape. This is the habitat of the red panda which is the first animal species guests will encounter at the gateway to the Asian Highlands experience. As a key storyline thread - this was once the site of a hillside Himalayan settlement and many of the structures still exist although only the stone walls remain, much of which has been taken over by the forest. As guests continue along this trek, a stone gateway ruin creates a threshold to the forest and the start of this journey through the highland range.
A gently ascending forest path heads to the north. Guests viewing west get the first glimpse of the Asian plains habitats including white-naped crane in the foreground and Indian rhino roaming the grassland beyond. To the east, situated between the marshland and the montane region is the tufted deer habitat, characterized by a damp deciduous and evergreen forest. From the wide entry path guests will have up-close and completely open viewing opportunities of both crane and tufted deer, in a naturalistic habitat setting. As with all the animal habitats, and tied to the Zoo’s mission to provide the highest level of animal care, various landscape elements including rocks, trees, felled logs, water bodies, terrain and natural substrates will be included to simulate the natural habitats and promote species appropriate animal behavior and activity.
As guests continue the ascent, an old but active rail line passes overhead with only (what appears to be) a rickety steel trestle supporting the passenger train above. Emerging from the underpass, the path becomes more narrow and the forest more dense. Guests will see the narrow stream which meanders through the natural valley around the mature canopy trees. After a few tight turns along the trail, off to the east is the Sloth Bear habitat, characterized by a grassy hillside with a dense deciduous forest beyond.
A remnant village structure still stands along the habitat edge, and provides a venue for up-close Sloth Bear training and animal behavior demonstrations. Guests will see sloth bear training that keepers use to help us improve their veterinary care. To help stimulate natural activities, the habitat itself will replicate the sloth bears natural range including dry forest understory with rocky outcrops, rotting logs, grassy knolls, termite mounds and various substrates.
Kid’s Discovery Trail
To the west of the sloth bear hillside habitat is a natural valley landform with a grove of mature deciduous canopy trees and a dense understory of shrubs and mist blanketing the forest floor – the ideal setting for the Kid’s Discovery Trail. This valley and relatively flat section of the trail creates a respite for guests, as well as an opportunity for kids to explore a series of foot paths with several nature-based play opportunities.
The Kid’s Discovery Trail is marked with a trailhead map that identifies key animals (bronze sculptures) and artifacts that kids must seek out – creating their own adventure. Along the way there are boulders to climb, logs to cross and mazes for kids to explore.
Approaching the summit of the Asian Highlands journey is the Amur tiger habitat. As guests continue the final ascent heading north from the Kid’s Discovery Trail, a prominent centuries old Stupa emerges from the dense forest. The landscape changes due to the higher elevations and more coniferous trees appear characterizing the boreal forest range.
The Amur tiger now occupies the fringe of what was once a more densely developed section of the hillside settlement. The habitat also marks the origin of the valley stream. Several cascading waterfalls and weaving stream courses characterize what is now, Tiger habitat. The moving water creates an active and dynamic environment for the tigers, providing opportunities for splashing as well as resting while keeping cool during the summer days. The primary settlement ruin includes glass panels to allow for guests and tigers to be close to each other in a natural habitat. To the west of the ruin is the tiger demonstration zone which allows 90-100 guests to sit comfortably in a mini-amphitheater setting to see animal enrichment demonstrations.
Located at the pinnacle of the site in a simulated sub-alpine ecological zone is the Snow Leopard habitat. At this point guests have climbed 35 feet in elevation from the Gateway and have experienced the various landscape types and unique animal habitats ranging from the foothills of the Himalayas, up to the eastern range of the Tibetan Plateau.
A steep articulated rocky cliff face, simulating the natural rugged mountainous habitat in Central Asia will characterize the Snow Leopard exhibit and will provide opportunities for climbing, leaping, resting, camouflaging, and observing guests and other animals nearby. A remnant shelter from the old hillside settlement remains and engages the edge of the habitat, which provides the opportunity for up-close snow leopard viewing as well as impromptu animal demonstrations.
Themed after a Mount Everest basecamp in Nepal, and playfully named with a nod to the Tibetan folklore, the “Yeti” Camp will serve as the primary guest services hub within the Asian Highlands experience. Just as guests begin their initial descent from the apex of the site, an opening in the sub-alpine forest will reveal what was once the village center of the old hillside settlement.
Although themed as a series of ruins, the camp will include modern amenities including restrooms (both men, women and family), a food and beverage trailer serving unique grab and go Asian inspired options, as well as a retail cart offering gift options geared specifically to the Asian Highlands theme. Plenty of shade and informal seating options will be available creating a true basecamp experience along the journey so guests can rest and recharge before completing the trek back through the foothills down to the grassland plains.
Takin & Goral
One of the most unique habitat types within the Asian Highlands experience is the Takin and Goral alpine exhibit. From the low point of the stream to the top of the ridge, the habitat encompasses over 40 feet of elevation change creating a very realistic and dynamic environment for these animals that love to jump, climb and traverse vertical cliff faces.
Rolling grass hills, steep switchback talus slopes and rocky outcroppings will characterize the habitat, with mature trees dotting the landscape to provide shade during the warmer months of the year. A meandering stream cuts through the foreground and will include shallow still zones to allow the animals to wade and rest, all within very close proximity of the guest trail and viewing overlooks.
Indian Rhino and Père David's Deer
Occupying the largest habitat area within the Asian Highlands experience is the Indian rhino and Père David's deer exhibit. As the story line continues, guests will descend from the alpine and sub-alpine regions of the Himalayas, ultimately reaching the grassland plains of northern India and southern Nepal.
As guests pass below another passenger rail line trestle, a 180-degree panoramic view opens up revealing the marshland habitat beyond characterized by tall grasses, ephemeral streams, mud wallows and sand pits. Water eroded cut earth banks will further define the character of the habitat and provide opportunities for scratching and rubbing. A few large mature canopy trees will provide much needed shade during the hot summer months. Guests will continue to follow the edge of the grasslands habitat, with multiple viewing and artifact discovery opportunities along the way, ultimately completing the Asian Highlands journey and transect through central and northern Asia.