Meet the ecologist going wild to study large carnivores

28 Sep 2022

Image: Dr Rae Wynn-Grant

Dr Rae Wynn-Grant shares her experience of tracking and studying wild animals all over the world, and the challenges she faces working as an ecologist.

While many corners of society are looking to address the climate crisis and the effects it will have on humanity, there are others working to protect animals.

Dr Rae Wynn-Grant is a conservation scientist, large carnivore ecologist, nature storyteller and advocate. Last year, she released a podcast, Going Wild with Dr Rae Wynn-Grant, which explores many of her scientific journeys through the world’s most remote jungles, savannahs, mountains and deserts.

Now in its second season, Wynn-Grant told about Going Wild and why she believes her work is so important.

“When animals evolve to fit nicely into a certain habitat, they often aren’t able to adapt quickly enough to the changes that climate change brings. It’s a huge problem that we’re trying to solve while also keeping an eye on how climate change is going to impact people.”

Wynn-Grant fell in love with wildlife ecology and conservation as a child watching nature shows on television.

“Although I loved nature shows, I didn’t necessarily realise I was being introduced to science on those shows – I thought I was just being entertained! So for many years growing up, I just thought that I wanted to be a nature show host when I grew up. Turns out, I wanted to be the type of scientist that studied wild animals and developed projects to protect them from harm.”

‘It’s about working hard to counteract those big forces that are destroying the environment’

Her podcast is a mixture of stories from the field in literally some of the wildest places in the world, as well as the personal journeys she went through along the way.

“Season one sinks you into the rainforests of Madagascar, my self-confidence journey, and the entire team of people who started as friends and quickly became family,” she explained.

Working as an ecologist

Wynn-Grant specialises in large carnivores such as jaguars, bears and lions, and her job entails field work, tracking large carnivores on foot, data collection and analysis.

She said one of the biggest highlights of her job is the travel. “I don’t get to do tourism usually, but instead I’m able to really sink into a place for a long period of time,” she said.

“For the years that I was studying carnivores in east Africa, I didn’t travel around and see many national parks, but I got to live in communities of east Africans and live with wildlife in ways that really grounded me to the place, the issues and the solutions.

“Similarly with places I’ve worked like the Lake Tahoe area – I haven’t gone skiing and done all of the fun recreation, but I’ve spent years in certain areas really getting a feel for the space, and that has been so meaningful.”

While she gets to see many places from a very unique perspective, Wynn-Grant said a common misconception about wildlife ecologists is that they’re outdoors in the field all the time.

“While that is a big part of the job, after the data is collected there are weeks or months of data analysis, which is largely done on a computer or in a lab. So, there is a lot of indoor time as well! And some ecologists/conservationists do entirely indoor work – there are so many different skillsets that are imperative to fighting the forces destroying the environment that everyone is needed!”

She also said people often think that environmental scientists are ‘perfect environmentalists’ who do nothing wrong in terms of sustainability.

“Many of us use single-use plastics from time to time or engage in lots of aeroplane travel, etc. It’s not about being a perfect environmentalist, it’s about working hard to counteract those big forces that are destroying the environment while doing our best as individuals.”

Challenges in and out of the field

Understandably, tracking and studying large carnivores doesn’t come without its dangers.

In one podcast episode entitled Near-Death Experiences in the Field, Wynn-Grant talks about everything from sleeping with poisonous snakes to literally being chased by a black bear.

However, she has also faced plenty of career challenges that had nothing to do with the animals she studies.

“One of the issues that shows up most often is not being ‘seen’ by many white scientists as one of them, meaning being seen as a scientist. I’ve shown up to teach college courses and have heard students look around and say, ‘When is the professor getting here?’

“I have had instances where co-workers at my same institution will tell me an area is off limits for me because ‘it’s for scientists only’, blatantly assuming I am not a scientist because of how I look.”

She also said that historic conservation initiatives have had a neo-colonial approach in many ways, which impacts her differently than her white counterparts.

“I think I also approach indigenous land sovereignty differently than many of my colleagues as, both within and outside of my environmental work, I push for justice for people of colour.”

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

While being an ecologist has its challenges, it’s clear how much Wynn-Grant loves animals and how passionate she is about protecting them.

It would have been remiss to not ask about her favourite animal, which she said surprises a lot of people.

“A lot of people expect my favourite animal to be one that I’ve studied, but in fact my favourite animal is the bald eagle. I love bald eagles and am really fascinated by birds of prey in general,” she said.

“Sometimes I think that I actually don’t want to study them because then my fascination will become more work focused than just plain infatuation. Fun fact, I didn’t see my first bald eagle until 2017, but once I did see one – soaring over the highway in upstate New York – now I’ve seen them everywhere from the Sierra Nevada mountains to the mountains of Wyoming to the Orlando, Florida airport!”

And what’s still on her animal bucket list?

“I haven’t yet studied tigers or seen a tiger in the wild! Maybe it’s me chasing the ‘lions and tigers and bears’ dream, but I’ve been captivated by these cats since childhood and knowing there are so few left in the wild has always made me want to see them for myself and learn more about how to protect them and their habitats,” she said.

“Luckily, there are some amazing tiger researchers and conservationists out there doing that work while I try to figure out how I might get over to Asia to see them.”

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Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic