- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Giant panda cub Tai Shan was busy climbing trees and exploring a waterfall yesterday at the National Zoo’s new Asia Trail exhibit, which opens next week as part of the popular attraction’s ongoing makeover and expansion.

The $53 million renovation of nearly 6 acres about doubles the space for the zoo’s three pandas and gives room for a few of their competitors, such as sloth bears and the newly arrived clouded leopards.

It also gives visitors, who in the past were kept at a distance, a much closer look at the animals.

“This is a giant leap forward for the National Zoo,” said zoo Director John Berry, who joined the staff about a year ago after the Asia Trail construction was under way. “Our goal is to renovate the entire zoo from top to bottom and bring everything up to Asia Trail standards.”

The exhibit will open to the public Tuesday.

As part of the expansion, Tai Shan and mother Mei Xiang have full run at the leafy new trees, rocky grottoes and shallow pools for dips in the summer.

New fog machines surround visitors and pandas, helping to cool the area and to simulate the animals’ natural habitat in China.

“This kind of topography will help keep them fit,” said Lisa Stevens, curator for giant pandas and primates. “It’s kind of nice to have to go looking for them.”

Panda father Tian Tian, however, is being kept separate and remains in the pandas’ old yard next door.

Zoo veterinarians are hoping to bring the panda couple together this spring to let them try to breed again.

The expanded space probably won’t have a direct effect on their chances of breeding success, Miss Stevens said.

The Asia Trial is the first element in a 10-year master plan to re-create the zoo at a cost of roughly $500 million. Mr. Berry said the plan will require support from Congress and private donors.

The zoo’s largest benefactor has been Fujifilm, which sponsored the giant panda exhibit with a donation approaching $10 million.

The pandas are among the zoo’s most popular attractions and have helped draw crowds expected to reach a record 3 million people this year — about 1 million more than last year.

In the pandas’ new habitat, a winding trail was designed with an eye toward conservation and sustainability, with a recirculating water system for the pandas’ waterfalls and environmentally friendly paths for visitors, made of biodegradable material bound by pine resin.

Interactive exhibits were built along the trail to educate the public about conservation science.

“We want everyone to leave a little wiser,” Mr. Berry said.

Among the newest animals along the Asia Trail are two red panda sisters, which resemble raccoons; a fishing cat, which hunts for her lunch just inches from visitors; and the elusive clouded leopards, which are being displayed at the zoo for the first time.

Zookeepers have learned that the fishing cats, which are slightly larger than house cats, are comfortable hunting skimmer fish from a transparent tank.

“It’s very rare,” said JoGayle Howard, the zoo’s reproductive scientist. “That’s really the glory of studying these animals for so long.”

Other animals sure to draw young admirers are the young, playful small-clawed otters from southern India and China, which recently arrived from the Columbus Zoo in Ohio. They gladly pose for pictures.

The next step in the zoo’s renovation is an expanded 4-acre enclosure for Asian elephants. The zoo hopes to break ground on the estimated $60 million Elephant Trails project in spring, Mr. Berry said.

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