Lifetime Achievement Award 2022

Lifetime Achievement Award
Emeritus Professor Brian van Wilgen

Professor in the Department of Botany and Zoology at Stellenbosch University

Brian van Wilgen is an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Botany and Zoology at Stellenbosch University. His work over the extent of his career as a researcher has made considerable impact in the area of ecosystem conservation, management and sustainable use for the benefit of society. A large body of his work has focused on biological invasions and how to deal with conflict species as well as the ecology and management of vegetation fires.

His work has been instrumental in raising awareness among key policymakers about the ecological and social impacts of alien plant invasions, justifying the implementation of wideranging programmes designed to manage invasive plant species in South Africa. He led the team at the CSIR that developed the initial models of water use by alien trees in the early 1990s, and extrapolated this across the country.

This work provided the scientific basis for the formation of the Working for Water programme, a government initiative for the removal of alien trees from catchment areas, but, more importantly, providing employment opportunities to thousands of disadvantaged South Africans, particularly women, youth and the disabled. By 2020 the Working for Water programme, now administered by the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, had invested an average of R355 million per year and created more than 8 300 full-time jobs annually.

His initial work on alien plants and water resources was followed by assessments of the impacts of invading alien plants on rangeland productivity, biodiversity and the risk of wildfires. He has produced studies detailing the monetary costs of invasions by species such as the black wattle (one of the first studies in the world to look at the nett value of a conflict species), pines, prosopis, and, more recently, the polyphagous shot hole borer. In addition he has quantified the substantial returns on investment achievable from biological control.

Overall, Professor van Wilgen’s work has helped to place South Africa at the forefront of managing biological invasions, and he has shared his knowledge internationally to regions such as East Africa, South America, Europe, Reunion, Australia and North America among others. Professor van Wilgen obtained his BSc in Forestry and Honours in Nature Conservation from Stellenbosch University, and his Master’s and PhD in Botany from the University of Cape Town. He completed a DSc in Botany at Stellenbosch University. He spent 16 years at the South African Forestry Research Institute as a Research Officer and Specialist Scientist before moving to the CSIR where he worked as a Chief Ecologist and a CSIR Fellow. In 2014 he joined SU as a Professor. He was appointed Emeritus Professor at the institution following his retirement in 2020.

Since 1985 Prof van Wilgen has published 175 articles in peer-reviewed journals with his papers being cited more than 21 000 times. His text book (with William Bond), Plants and Fire, has been cited more than 2 000 times while Biological Invasions in South Africa, published in 2020, has already been downloaded 372 000 times and cited 500 times. He maintains an h-index 77 on Google Scholar. Prof van Wilgen has co-authored and/or edited four books – Biological Invasions in South Africa (2020); Fire in Southern African Savannas: Ecological and atmospheric perspectives (1997); Plants and Fire (1996); and Fire in South African Mountain Fynbos: Species, community and ecosystem response in Swartboskloof (1996) and 40 book chapters.

He has regularly written articles for mainstream and science publications and has been interviewed on radio and television to raise concerns around invasive species. Over the course of his career he has supervised a number of Doctoral candidates to completion as well as Master’s students and Postdoctoral researchers. He regularly reviews papers for international academic journals and is an examiner for MSc and PhD dissertations both locally and internationally.

His work has garnered considerable recognition over the years. He won the CSIR’s Outstanding Achiever Award twice, in 1996 and 1997, and, in 2010, the National Science and Technology Foundation’s Award for outstanding contribution to science, engineering, technology and innovation over a lifetime. He also received the Kudu Award from South African National Parks for corporate contributions to conservation, and the South African Academy of Science’s Gold medal. In 2011 he was elected a Member of the Academy of Science of South Africa and in 2014 a Fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa.