The WNC Nature Center has a Valentine’s gift for Asheville. At noon on Thursday, Feb. 14, the center will open a new exhibit featuring two red pandas: Leafa and Phoenix.
The pair arrived in Asheville from Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo in November and has since been under quarantine at the Nature Center. The red panda is native to the high-altitude temperate forests of Nepal and China but is currently endangered across that range, primarily due to habitat loss.
Most of the funding needed for the red panda habitat and breeding center comes from the nonprofit Friends of the Nature Center, which chipped in $154,200 toward construction and has committed to $5,000 in annual operations support for 10 years. The city of Asheville contributed $30,620 in construction costs from the Parks and Recreation Department’s deferred maintenance budget.
Due to Leafa’s age — she is 10, and red pandas can live up to 15 years in captivity — and her genetic representation through the four litters she has already produced with Phoenix, she received an implant to prevent further pregnancies. The exhibit’s breeding center will thus be used by future animals at the Nature Center.
The red pandas come to town as the first stage of the Nature Center’s Prehistoric Appalachia project. The effort is meant to give context to fossilized finds from the Pliocene Epoch — roughly 5.3 to 2.6 million years ago — excavated at the Gray Fossil site in Tennessee, 70 miles to the north, in 2000.
Fossil remains of a distant relative to Leafa and Phoenix, Pristinailurus bristoli (Bristol’s panda), were unearthed at that site. Paleontologists estimate that this ancient ancestor would have weighed up to three times as much as the modern red panda, although its bite was likely weaker.
Ancestors of the modern tapir, sloth, rhinoceros, crocodile, camel and badger were also found at the Gray dig. The Nature Center intends to add the South American tapir, a vulnerable species and one of the largest land mammals in South America, as the next animal in the Prehistoric Appalachia collection.