Living Large as Zoo Unveils Asia Trail

By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 12, 2006

The National Zoo unveiled its new Asia Trail exhibit yesterday, the first phase of a planned overhaul that rejuvenates a prominent slice of the park and nearly doubles the space for the popular giant pandas to frolic.

Officials called the trail -- which also features sloth bears, clouded leopards, red pandas and other creatures -- the start of a "complete transformation" of the animal park. The $53 million project is the most significant upgrade in nearly 40 years, officials said.

The Asia Trail showcases animals from the continent on some of the zoo's prime real estate, a six-acre stretch off the entrance at Connecticut Avenue NW. The winding path includes waterfalls, bamboo groves and other features meant to resemble natural habitats.

"Our goal is to renovate the entire zoo from top to bottom, to bring it up to a standard we can all be proud of," the zoo's director, John Berry, said in a preview for the trail, which will open to the public Tuesday.

The 117-year-old animal park has been rebounding after turmoil in recent years over management and deteriorating facilities. Since taking over as director last year, Berry has launched an ambitious agenda to build "the world's finest zoo" over the next decade. Next up, officials said: a $60 million elephant exhibit on which construction will begin next year.

The focus goes beyond the main facility in Northwest Washington. Eventually, Barry said, he hopes to open the zoo's conservation and research facility in Front Royal, Va., to the public for safari-like tours.

The zoo, part of the Smithsonian Institution, relies heavily on federal money, and federal funds covered $45.3 million of the Asia Trail's cost. Private donors have come forward with the rest, including Fujifilm, which contributed $3.8 million for the new giant panda habitat.

The trail meanders about a quarter mile -- past new exhibits devoted to seven endangered or threatened species -- before reaching the Fujifilm Giant Panda Habitat, which has been expanded to more than 40,000 square feet. At stop after stop, visitors will be able to see the giant pandas and other creatures through glass-walled enclosures along the pathway. The goal, officials said, is to let visitors experience "the sights and sounds" of Asia up close.

The giant pandas have long been a favorite of visitors and have an even bigger following since the birth in July 2005 of Tai Shan, the zoo's first surviving panda cub. The cub and his parents, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, now have a wide-ranging hillside all their own, with thick trees and branches to gambol on as well as waterfalls and rock grottoes cooled by underground water pipes. The zoo put a cooling rock for the giant pandas at the edge of the exhibit so that visitors can get within inches of the animals, separated only by glass.

Zoo officials said they began allowing the giant pandas to test their new habitat a little more than two weeks ago. They were cautious at first, panda curator Lisa Stevens said. But yesterday, Tai Shan, his mother nearby, appeared well at ease. The cub snuffled through the underbrush as he hunted for a carrot, which he then devoured, licking his lips, as camera shutters whirred. Afterward, he climbed a cork tree and hugged it.

Tai Shan's birth has been a boon for the zoo, bolstering attendance and contributing to a $1.6 million jump in merchandise sales in the first half of the year. But as part of an agreement with China, which lent Tai Shan's parents to the zoo, the cub is set to be returned to that country this summer after his second birthday. Zoo officials hope that they can breed the parents again this spring and that the roomy new habitat will increase chances for a second cub.

"Anything that keeps our pandas healthy and happy helps support reproduction," Stevens said.

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