Red Pandas are Coming to The Nature Center

Though they roam the eastern Himalayas and southwestern China, their close ancestors used to call the Southern Appalachians home. And now they’re returning. Red pandas will come to the WNC Nature Center this fall.

According to National Geographic, the red panda has given scientists taxonomic fits. In the past, it had been classified as a relative of the giant panda, but now, researchers believe it as a closer relative to the raccoon. Currently, red pandas are considered members of their own unique family — the Ailuridae.

While red pandas currently live in the forest of the Himalayas and major mountain ranges of southwestern China, 5 million years ago their now extinct relative Bristol’s Panda inhabited what is now known as the Southern Appalachians Mountains in North Carolina and Tennessee. They are an endangered species. Only 10,000 wild adult red pandas remain in the world. And red panda populations are on the decline in the wild.

Bringing them to the WNC Nature Center is the next development in the center’s Prehistoric Appalachia-themed area of the park. The exhibit will feature a den and breeding area, an interpretive exhibit and viewing areas.

Construction will begin this spring with the anticipation of bringing a pair of red pandas to the WNC Nature Center this fall. Eventually, the Nature Center staff hope to host a breeding pair of red pandas.

The Friends of the WNC Nature Center will fund 83 percent of the Asheville City Council’s approved $184,820 project: construction of a red panda habitat.

“We’re excited to work with the City to make this project possible. We have agreed to donate $154,200 toward the construction of this habitat,” said Kelly Shanafelt, Executive Director of the Friends.

The Friends will rely on individual donors as well as grant funders to raise the $154,200 and they’re already well on their way! “We’ve raised about 40% of the funds needed, due in large part to a single donor family who was inspired by the red pandas they visited while on a trip to China,” said Shanafelt.

The Friends have also been raising project funds through the sale of red panda-themed merchandise at the gift shop they oversee within the Nature Center. The red pandas are the first species to be introduced to the Center as part of its new Prehistoric Appalachia project, part of the Center’s 2020 Wild Vision. Red pandas are endangered with less than 10,000 individuals living in the wild.

The most successful red panda breeding program in the world is at Zoo Knoxville, and skeletal remains of an ancient ancestor of the red panda have been found at the Gray Fossil Site in Gray, Tennessee.

“The central Asian range of the modern day red panda is almost identical climate-wise to the Southern Appalachians so our pandas should feel very much at home in Asheville,” said Chris Gentile, WNC Nature Center Director. “The fact that the fossilized remains of their ancestor the Bristol’s Panda have been discovered in Eastern Tennessee indicates that these pandas were once prevalent in our area.”

The Nature Center hopes to welcome a red panda this fall, and will eventually host a breeding pair. You can donate to support this project at https://wildwnc.org/red-panda-campaign.

For more information, visit https://wildwnc.org or call 828-259-8080.

About Shelby Harrell
Shelby Harrell is the editor of the Biltmore Beacon, editor of The Guide arts and entertainment publication and is a staff writer for Mountaineer Publishing. Originally from Asheville, she has worked in journalism for seven years and currently lives in Clyde, NC.