‘Lions and tigers and bears’ (and more!)
How a childhood obsession became a full time profession
Gregg Reese OW Contributor | 7/17/2020, midnight
“It wasn’t very exciting to learn about the natural world through the pages of a textbook or in-class lecture,” she recalls.
The “Aha” moment
“There were few, if any, classes that focused on wildlife. So I challenged myself with a study abroad experience that completely changed my life.”
—Wynn-Grant on her first years as an Environmental Science major
Fortune smiled in the form of a chance to study abroad in a wildlife management program. Once again the aspiring naturalist packed her bags, this time for the Motherland of southern Kenya. Living among the indigenous Maasai people, she became fluent in Swahili, a language common in Africa’s “Great Lakes” region of the Congo, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. Maa, the common language spoken by the Maasai is rapidly being replaced by the use of English and Swahili.
The presence of an African-American woman, the first they had ever met, proved to be an eye opening experience for her hosts. They were curious about life across the ocean from the perspective of a person of color, and especially incidents like Hurricane Katrina and the plight of those caught in that maelstrom.
More importantly, Wynn-Grant’s eyes were opened in more concrete ways.
“We lived in a camp, mostly outdoors, and studied African wildlife with Black African professors. This was my first notable experience in nature.”
Her first trek into field work was supervised by native African cadre, another first, and this mentoring opened her eyes to the possibilities of a career studying the animals that fascinated her, especially the study of lions in eastern Africa and chimpanzees and gorillas in the Congo.
“I was absolutely hooked,” Wynn-Grant says, “…and my career was launched from that one experience.”
This experience stayed with her upon her return to the United States to complete her Bachelor of Science degree from Emory, and on to the graduate program in Environmental Studies at Yale University. By this time another opportunity presented itself, this one being the prospect of researching lions in Tanzania to build upon the experiences forged during her earlier expedition.
Moving on to the doctoral program at Columbia University and transitioning to the study of North American carnivores, allowed Wynn-Grant to note the differences and similarities between different specimens on these two separate continents.
Since then, her career has taken her to Montana and the Western Great Basin to study Grizzly Bears and the Pine Nut Mountains of Nevada to study American Black Bears.
Throughout all this study and travel Wynn-Grant notes a commonality, in that human intrusion into areas previously the exclusive domain of large carnivores increases the probability of interspecies conflict.
Angelinos are largely aware of this problem, via the well documented episodes of bears (and occasionally mountain lions) trespassing on neighborhoods in outlying areas, particularly those with swimming pools and unsecured garbage containers.
Another concern is the impact of global warming; a well-documented climate phenomenon which scientists say has impacted the biological rhythms of animals, i.e. shortening the hibernation routines of bears.
Prepping for the future
“If we lose bears, lions, whales, birds, bees, fish, etc we’re going to have some extreme ecological consequences that will impact our planet.”
—Rae Wynn-Grant, Ph,D.
Today, Wynn-Grant juxtaposes her field research with tenure as a visiting lecturer and professor at Arizona State University, Columbia University and Johns Hopkins University. As a public speaker and media commentator, she is an in-demand guest on the American Museum of Natural History, National Geographic, and PBS. In addition, she remains a committed advocate for the inclusion of new and non-traditional newcomers to challenge the perception of what a scientist looks like in the public psyche.
“I’d love to see more people, especially more people of color work in this field as we need all kinds of brilliant minds working to solve these critical problems.”
When not gallivanting across the wilderness, Wynn-Grant lives in the urban boondocks of New York City with her husband and daughter.
For more on this amazing trailblazer, visit: https://www.raewynngrant.com/.