PROFESSOR Roger Wheater grew up in an urban environment and left school at 16 to learn the building trade. Yet, today, the 73-year-old, who lives in Innerleithen, is regarded as Scotland's foremost expert on wildlife conservation.
That fact was acknowledged last week when the former big game warden, director of Edinburgh Zoo and chairman of the National Trust for Scotland was announced as the new president of the Scottish Wildlife Trust.
"It is a tremendous honour and an exciting challenge," admitted Dr Wheater.
His appointment comes hot on the heels of the publication of SWT's new approach to wildlife conservation for the next 25 years: 'Natural Connections – A Vision for Scotland's Wildlife'.
Roger Wheater spent his childhood in Brighton but an early interest in the natural world was fostered when he was sent to live on a Sussex farm during the war.
There was also the influence of his grandfather who gifted him an illustrated book, 'The Albert N'yanza, Great Basin of the Nile', written in 1866 by the African explorer Samuel Baker.
Young Roger was fascinated by these pioneering adventures and Baker's encounters with wild and exotic animals in what became Uganda. He little realised then that the east central African country would play a major part in his working life.
Following his call-up for National Service, he successfully applied for a posting with the Royal West African Frontier Force. Two years on and Private Wheater's passion for wildlife and wild places sparked a consuming ambition to become a big game warden. However, he needed to establish residency and, to that end, took up a post with the Colonial Police in pre-independence Uganda. Five years later, he realised his dream, becoming Chief Warden of the vast Murchison Falls National Park: home to 14,000 elephants.
After 10 years in the job, he was appointed director of Uganda National Parks and sat on many committees concerned with the management of East Africa's dramatic wildlife.
In 1972, less than a year after Idi Amin seized power, Roger Wheater left Uganda and came to Scotland as director of the Royal Zoological Society, with responsibility for Edinburgh Zoo and, later, the Highland Wildlife Park. In the 1980s, shortly after being elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, he made a return visit to Uganda as a United Nations conservation consultant as the republic sought to recover from the excesses of its former dictator.
In the eight years of his rule, Amin had ruthlessly exploited the national parks, reducing the elephant population from 32,000 to just 1,500 and virtually wiping out the native buffalo.
Back at the zoo, Dr Wheater's work saw him involved at senior level in a wide range of national and international organisations, including SWT which he had joined on his return to the UK.
In 1991 he received an OBE for his contribution to conservation and, in 1997, became deputy chairman of Scottish Natural Heritage, chairing its beaver working group and access forum.
"I felt finally able to leave Edinburgh when I completed my five-year stint as chairman of the National Trust for Scotland and it was an easy decision to come to the Borders," he told TheSouthern. "I had come here fishing for many years and my wife Jeannie has strong local connections, her late mother having been headmistress at Blainslie."
The couple have two grown-up children: lawyer David, employed at the Land Register of Scotland, and Jennifer, who works at the Royal Blind School.
Dr Wheater believes other areas of Scotland can benefit from the example of the Tweed Forum, the amalgam of local interest groups which has spearheaded conservation improvements across the famous catchment.
"This kind of partnership working is undoubtedly the way forward and I see my new role as ambassadorial, bringing agencies and people together and, where possible, using my influence to improve things as we face the challenges posed by climate change, industrialisation and wildlife crime."
Along with Jeannie, he was due to return to Uganda this week in his role as an honorary doctor of his own alma mater, the Open University. He will present a paper on conservation at a major conference in Kampala before attending an OU graduation ceremony.
Roger Wheater, whose presidency will last for two years, is one of 28,000 members of the SWT, a voluntary body which seeks to raise public awareness of threatened habitats and species.
"I have been involved with the trust for over 30 years and never has there been a time when its influence is more important. I hope I can contribute in some way to raising awareness of issues affecting wildlife."
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