The Western North Carolina Nature Center was the topic of the final Leadership Asheville Forum critical issues luncheon of the year. Executive director Chris Gentile was the featured speaker, addressing recent accomplishments and some exciting new plans for the Nature Center’s future.
Gentile said the past ten years have been transformative, and that support from the City of Asheville helped has make it possible. “Even more important is the lifeblood from the staff, volunteers, and donors. We can maintain operations from the money the city gives us, but we couldn’t expand and add new experiences without that lifeblood and certainly our Friends of the Nature Center with their remarkable fundraising skills.”
Gentile said that of all the zoos he’s worked at, the thing he likes best about the Nature Center is that it’s small enough to be user friendly, but large enough to provide folks with a great experience. “When you come to the Nature Center, you’re going to see a lot of animals that live the Southern Appalachian Mountains, animals that we may have in our back yard, and animals that we may have at one time had in our back yard, but no longer live here.”
What makes the Southern Appalachian Mountains unique is that we have animals here that live in very few other places.
“We have 37 species of salamanders that live from northern Virginia right on down to Georgia. We have species that only live in a six to seven square mile area. For one species that’s the only place in the world they can be found,” he said.
People come here because of the natural beauty, whether it is for the wildlife or the natural vistas we have from some of our mountain peaks. The Nature Center provides guests an opportunity to observe plants and animals that they might not spot in the wild, even if they are in the same vicinity.
“So when you come to the Southern Appalachians we want to introduce you as many of the things you may see in your natural encounters as we can. That’s the role of the Nature Center, to present the fact that this wonderful ecosystem is such a very unique place. Our mission is to inspire appreciation, nurture understanding, and advance the conservation efforts that exist throughout this rich region.”
The Nature Center makes donations every year to conservation organizations that help protect our wildlife. “We do a lot of work with the hellbender salamander recovery program. At two and a half to three feet long, it’s the largest salamander we have in the United States. North Carolina has the highest population in any state of the highly endangered Indiana bat, so we contribute quite a lot of money to bat research in our area to combat the deadly White Nose Syndrome.”
About seven projects have been completed since planning for them began in 2010. They include a glorious new front entrance that resolved parking challenges and accessibility issues, and a new expanded red wolf exhibit. The discovery of a fossilized red panda skull while excavation was conducted for the I-26 corridor in Gray, Tennessee encouraged Gentile to include live specimens of the bears in the Nature Center’s collection.
“The only place red pandas currently live in the wild is Central Asia. We’re developing a new area of our site we’re calling ‘Prehistoric Appalachians,’ and that’s where our red pandas will live.”
The Nature Center’s pandas were sent from the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, and are presently in quarantine. On February 14, 2019, the new red panda exhibit will open to the public. The Nature Center also commissioned the creation of a sculpture of the extinct Southern Appalachian species – the only such sculpture in the world — for visitors to compare to the live animals named Phoenix and Leafa.
Gentile discovered that the flora we have in Southern Appalachia are very similar to the flora found in Central Asia.
“We have a lot of rhododendron species, and native bamboo species. So if we had similar flora,” Gentile reasoned, “wouldn’t it make sense that maybe the fauna might have been similar as well? Researchers at the Gray Fossil Museum are finding that the fossilized panda ate our native bamboo, just like the living species eats bamboo in Central Asia.”
Bamboo to feed Phoenix and Leafa will eventually be grown on two plus acres at the Nature Center.