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Asian Highlands is here!

Here are 5 things not to miss in the Zoo’s newest habitat

A highlight of the summer at the Zoo was the journey to Asian Highlands, the new habitat for red panda, snow leopard, Amur leopard and takin. Asian-inspired architecture, a new café and gift shop and, of course, the combination of favorite animals (red panda!) with new species makes this Wilderness Trek space a must-see. This area is also the perfect fall and winter destination, since all of these species are cold-hardy.

Here are five things not to miss at Asian Highlands on your next visit.

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1. Overhead tunnels

Borrowing from the design concepts in Rosebrough Tiger Passage, Asian Highlands features two overhead tunnels that provide a dramatic entry to the visitor space, and actually serve as the entrance to the outdoors for the snow leopards and the Zoo’s Amur leopard, Edgar.

The tunnels connect the indoor holding space to the outdoor yards for the cats, so they walk through them several times a day. The tunnels rest over one of the habitat’s most striking design features: the moon gates, which are circular, stone entrances for the guests.

“Just like your house cat, big cats prefer to be up high. From those vantage points, they can scope out potential prey, feel protected from other predators and survey the landscape,” said Curator of Animals Travis Vineyard, who oversees Asian Highlands and all of Wilderness Trek.

“We learned from Rosebrough Tiger Passage that the tigers really thrived with the added vertical space in their environment so we repeated that feature in the design of Asian Highlands.”

The landscape of Asian Highlands also reflects this preference. The four leopard yards are built into the rocky, sloped hillside of Wilderness Trek so the cats are often higher than the guests. Uninterrupted viewing through glass panels and a path that winds through the habitat make it easy and fun to try to spot the leopards.

There are four total leopard yards, and each is connected by the tunnels. Keepers can shift which species of leopard is in which yard, creating even more variety for the cats – and guests. One yard has been designated the “cub yard,” which the Zoo’s three snow leopard cubs took over in July. With smaller climbing features and an entryway out from the ground floor, it is the perfect space to acclimate the young ones to Asian Highlands.

So when you cross the bridge and enter Asian Highlands, look UP! The snow leopards especially are often seen in the overheads.

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Snow leopard photo courtesy of Kyle Lanzer/Cleveland Metroparks

2. Cooling caves

All of the animals in Asian Highlands are native to regions of Asia with similar climate to Ohio, which means they won’t be shy in the cold Cleveland winters.

But 90 degree temperatures in the summer may send them looking for relief in a cooling cave. Both the red panda yard, as well as two leopard yards have camouflaged cooling caves; try to find them when you visit.

The caves are built into rock structures, or in the case of the red panda yard, a fake tree. The structures have hidden tubes that circulate water to drop the temperature in the caves as much as 30 degrees lower than the air temperature. When early July hit over 90 degrees, for example, the cats could rest in 60 degree air in the cave. The caves are positioned in the habitat at angles that provide good visibility for guests, with just enough privacy for the cats, Vineyard said.

In the winter, the cooling function is shut off and the cave serves as a cozy den for resting.

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Snow leopard photo courtesy of Kyle Lanzer/Cleveland Metroparks

3. Climbing (and leaping!) platforms

Another way Asian Highlands maximizes space is the variety of climbing structures for snow leopards and the Amur leopard. The front yard includes two 25-foot-tall climbing poles for exercising jumping and climbing skills, much like the cats would show in the wild when hunting.

Make sure to check for cats on the prowl on climbing platforms, located in all four leopard yards. The platforms have various pitches and heights, and are often connected to each other by beams for balancing.

Vineyard’s animal care team helped design the structures with project architects Van Auken Akins and WDM Architects. Even the “cub yard” has platforms at lower heights.

“This was an experiment for us, really, since the cats have never had the space to jump and climb these distances before, so we will be watching the first few months to see how they do,” said Vineyard. “Some of the platforms have pretty dramatic pitches, some are more easily accessible. We wanted to provide as much complexity and choice as we could. You can’t really predict if the cats will prefer something that has a flat table top feel or something steeper, so we wanted to offer choice.”

Snow leopard Sameera could be seen taking huge leaps between platforms in late June, and Edgar was spotted nimbly climbing to the top of the tallest structure.

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4. Takin!

The Zoo’s newest resident is a goat-antelope species native to the Himalayan region of Tibet and China. Strong legs, stable hooves and a stocky build make these large animals built for navigating rocky outcrops. Their appearance is almost mythical looking (one member called them a Dr. Seuss creation!), and their shaggy coat and horns make a nice complement to the sleek leopards next door.

This small herd – three males – came from The Wilds in Cumberland, Ohio; this is the first time the Zoo has had takin. To help the takin adjust to their new space, the animal care team installed mesh fencing around the habitat during the summer. That will eventually be removed once the herd adapts.

Revered as a national treasure in China, takin receive the highest protection status but still face risks of poaching for their coats and meat. Habitat destruction of bamboo forests near their mountainous ranges also contributes to their decline in the wild.

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5. Conservation focus

The tranquil space inside Asian Highlands’ education plaza is a good setting to learn about the conservation challenges these species face in the wild. The Amur leopard, for instance, is the most endangered big cat species on Earth with fewer than 100 animals estimated to remain in the wild. Snow leopard and red panda are also vulnerable to poaching, human conflict and habitat loss.

The Zoo has supported conservation work in Asia for decades. The Snow Leopard Trust, one of the Zoo’s first conservation partners, works to monitor population density and track the elusive individual’s ranges in the mountains. Red Panda Network educates local communities about the dangers of poaching and illegal wildlife trade.

Guests to Asian Highlands can make a difference for these species by advocating for an end to the illegal wildlife trade or purchasing a handmade item from the Asian Highlands gift shop that goes to support communities working to save species. Be sure to make a wish for wildlife at the “conservation wheel” on your walk out of the education building, too.

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