Saving threatened habitats worldwide

Roger Wilson (1949-2017)

22 June, 2017 - 15:41 -- John Burton
Roger Wilson

Reminiscences by John Burton

I have known Roger since the late 1970s. When he died suddenly in June 2017, he left a chasm in my life which will never be filled. Roger was an exceptionally innovative person and one of the most experienced, practical conservationists of his generation. He travelled the globe, and his professional experiences ranged from island bird conservation in the Indian Ocean to Mountain Gorillas in Rwanda; from the forests of Belize to the Gran Chaco of Paraguay; from the Falkland Islands to the Philippines and many more. His career included working for the big foreign aid programmes, including the EU, as well as large conservation bodies such as The Nature Conservancy. But he was in his element when working with smaller organisations, where he could develop his unique style of pioneering and effective conservation, creating new models for future generations. For the past decade he brought his incredible skills to World Land Trust (WLT) and led our conservation programmes.

I first met Roger Wilson when I employed him in 1981 to run the Mountain Gorilla Project (MGP) in Rwanda, which had been started by the Fauna and Flora Preservation Society. Roger and his wife Regine met in the Seychelles, and they moved to the edge of the Parc de Volcans to take over the relatively new MGP. One of Roger’s unique abilities was getting ‘under the skin’ of local communities. I can vividly recall sitting with Roger, drinking home-brewed palm beer in a thatched hut, finding out about the villagers’ attitudes to gorillas and other wildlife. The MGP has since grown and is now considered one of the most successful species conservation programmes in recent history, providing significant income to the countries involved.

Not many years later, WLT’s first project, Programme for Belize (PfB), was in need of support. PfB’s Director asked if WLT could supply a technical advisor, who could not only help with developing the conservation strategy, but also develop grant applications. We hired Roger on a one-year contract. He was so successful in this post that one year led to several years of work in Belize. With Roger’s steady hand working alongside the Director, Joy Grant, PfB became self-supporting. This was characteristic of Roger’s modus operandi as a great negotiator and he was always happy to let others do the fronting and even take the credit. He realised that in developing countries it was absolutely essential that the old colonial model of conservation was discarded, and that local conservationists and administrators were empowered. One of his conditions of being employed by WLT to work in Belize was that, while we paid his salary for the first two years, he was responsible to the Director of the local NGO – Programme for Belize (PfB). His successes in Belize included establishing one of the very first carbon offsetting programmes, before even the Kyoto Agreement had been established.

Following his spell with Programme for Belize, Roger worked as a consultant, mostly in West Africa, often on EU and similar foreign aid projects. From that period, there is a wealth of experience and knowledge that we all hoped one day Roger would write up – he had a unique sense of humour and many of his experiences and anecdotes are hilariously funny. Perhaps the most famous was Roger recounting how in Burkina Faso he was losing weight, in poor health and not enjoying the local campfire cuisine. So the local chief ordered the villagers to cook him a special meal: an eagle, boiled (with all its feathers on) with a Maggi Cube (everything apparently was cooked in this way) and the meal was dressed with mouse sauce (the mouse had been pounded to a paste in a mortar and pestle).

In 2008, WLT was growing, and it was clear that I could no longer manage the conservation aspects of our work as well as being CEO, so Roger joined the team again. Over subsequent years with WLT his title changed – at times he was Head of Conservation at other times Director of Special Projects. But we knew that meant Roger doing what Roger was good at: mentoring and innovation. As he had already initiated a carbon offset project in his days at PfB, he was ideally suited to developing the new Carbon Balanced programme. The incredible success of projects in Paraguay and (more recently) Vietnam are testimony to his vision and his understanding of the aspirations of the local communities.

Roger and I shared many interests, both as field naturalists, but also, surprisingly, in literature and films. I will miss not being able to swap bizarre ‘bad movies’ like Coffin Joe (Brazilian Horror movies), Italian Giallo films, or South American magical realism novels. We both enjoyed eating local weird foods and drink; there was even an element of food twitching – which Roger always won hands down with all the insects and crustaceans he had eaten in his travels.

But, perhaps my most abiding memory of Roger will be that of many of his close friends and colleagues: sitting long into the night over a whisky or rum talking about work, talking about wildlife and occasionally what we had been reading. Unfortunately it also, in Roger’s case, involved smoking and ultimately cancer caught up with him. When Roger found out his response was typical: “What should I expect after over 50 years of treating my body like this?” But Roger was receiving treatment and the outlook was positive, so his unexpected death was a blow to all of us.

I have kept my reminiscences strictly to my direct contact with him. There were many other facets to his work and personality; despite what appears to be a gregarious career Roger was also an intensely private person and we will all have very different memories. We will be celebrating his life and achievements at an event to be held in early September, as well as launching an autumn appeal in his memory.

 

 

Comments

Submitted by Gerardo Quiroz ... on

I met Roger in Belize City, we were neighbors, and I recall with great pleasure the reassuring tone of his voice as well as his sense of humor combined with remarkable courtesy. I am so sorry to learn this terrible news. I hope Régine is fine. My deepest condolences...

Submitted by Chris Minty on

Sorry sad to just hear about Roger - I will never forget his help, advise and inspiration chats during the Belize 1996 University of Edinburgh Expedition and my subsequent work at Las Cuevas - and what a great landrover he had !

He really was one of the unsung hero's of conservation and my condolences to Regine, his family and all at World Land Trust

We are saddened at the passing of Mr. Wilson and send our deepest condolences to his family and friends. As a young conservation officer in the Belize Forest Department, I remember his caring for nature conservation. His inspiration for core conservation is left with us.

Submitted by Garry BOOTH on

A good life and well lived. I didn't know Roger personally but reading this I can see what a great loss this is, and an extraordinary legacy too.

Submitted by Andrew Smiley on

I am very sad to hear of Roger's death.
For 2>3 years, on and off, we were colleagues on WLT reforestation projects in Ecuador and we got on very well together.
He was excellent to work with and - as my contribution to our area of activity was negligible - I found him to be a calm, clear and humorous mentor when we chatted about work in the evenings. We were born within 4 years of each other so we quickly moved onto memories of other travels and enthusiasms.
I learned a lot from him in a short time and, I hope, made some return when we talked about the Hispanic world ... and then Hispanic drinks with similar gusto and increased momentum while enjoying what was set in front of us to eat and happily puffing away into the night.
He was as John says a private person, quite shy in groups and quiet if not talking about one of his many areas of expertise. He made it clear to me early in our friendship that 'downtime' was vital in every working day. I felt exactly the same so we quickly agreed on where personal frontiers lay.
Those who knew him well enough would make every effort to extend that downtime to include the whole night. His snore rivalled a tunnel-boring machine and a couple of times I misjudged the minimum distance necessary to sleep peacefully ... or at all!
It was a privilege to know this very talented man and I send my condolences to Régine and to all this who worked with him far longer than I did and knew him much better.

Mon cher Roger, mon très cher ami,

Que dire ? Tu as choisi de partir un peu vite, mais finalement n’est-ce pas la meilleure façon ?
Quelques années sans se voir mais sans se perdre. Tant d’années ensembles au Rwanda dans les Birunga où tu m’as beaucoup appris, appris à reconnaître la flore, la faune, où tu as accepté d’installer pour mes mesures une station météo que tu relevais chaque jour avec Régine, des moments inoubliables dans votre case sur les flancs du Visoke. Tu m’as fait l’amitié de pouvoir être le deuxième humain à approcher un groupe de gorilles que tu avais habitué à ta présence pendant un an. Tu as été un des pionniers qui a démontré que la conservation devait parfois passer par un développement touristique pour récolter des fonds afin de protéger la faune et la flore. Tant de souvenirs et de beauté partagées. Tu es une belle personne, un peu ours et réticent à te livrer, mais avec le temps et la confiance, les liens sont solides et dépassent la vie.
Et pour ceux qui restent, notamment à notre chère Régine, je redirais ce que j’écrivais il y a quelques années :

« N’oubliez pas !

Le temps érode les pics de douleur
Et comble les vallées de larme
Pour toujours et encore
Niveler de nouvelles plaines de sérénité ! »

Comme géographe, on ne se refait pas, n’est-ce pas ?
Je n’ai appris ton départ que très récemment grâce à la redirection d’une lettre qui a mis du temps à me parvenir au milieu du Pacifique. A cause de cet éloignement, je ne pourrai malheureusement pas participer à la rencontre de septembre, mais je serai de tout cœur avec vous.

Bon voyage mon ami ! A bientôt !

_____________________________
My dear Roger, my very dear friend,

What to say ? You chose to leave a little bit fast, but in the end is it not the best way?

A few years without seeing each other but without getting lost. So many years together in Rwanda in the Birunga where you taught me a lot, taught me to recognize the flora, the fauna, where you agreed to install for me a weather station that you met every day with Regine, unforgettable moments in your box on The sides of the Visoke. You made me the friendship of being the second human to approach a group of mountain gorillas that you had accustomed to your presence for a year. You were one of the pioneers who demonstrated that conservation must sometimes go through a tourist development to raise funds to protect the flora and fauna. So many shared memories and beauty… You are a beautiful person, a little bear and reluctant to give yourself up, but with time and confidence, the bonds are solid and go beyond life.
For those who remain, especially to our dear Régine, I would repeat what I wrote a few years ago:
“Do not forget !
Time erodes the peaks of pain
And fills the valleys of tears
For always and again and again
Leveling new plains of serenity!”

As geographer we do not get over it, do we?
I only learned your departure very recently thanks to the redirection of a letter which took some time to reach me in the middle of the Pacific. Because of this distance, I will not be able to attend the September meeting, but I will be with you wholeheartedly.

Have a nice trip my friend ! See you !

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