Dr Nigel Winser is an Oxfordshire, United Kingdom-based, conservation advocate, who has devoted much of his career to the conservation and environmental issues that face Oman, since his first venture here in 1985/86, for the highly acclaimed Wahiba Sands Sea Project.
I was able to catch up with Winser briefly recently, and discovered that, though his impact has been significant, it continues to be so, through his conservation advocacy on behalf of the Sultanate’s natural resources. Whether it is whales, dolphins or turtles in the marine environment, the Arabian Leopard or Arabian Thar, high on the Hajar mountains, or the Aflaj that still sustain much of the nation, Winser is never far away, offering support, guidance, advice and enthusiasm to the cause.
There is a story behind the man that is itself remarkable. In fact, one could genuinely wonder at the impact this passionate explorer of our planet may have achieved, was he born in the glory days of such exploration and discovery giants as Marco Polo, Captain James Cook, the legendary Ibn Batuta, Charles Darwin or Sir Joseph Banks.
Born in Kenya, the son of a Government District Commissioner, Winser was struck with poliomyelitis, at the age of 18 months, but didn’t let this affect his curiosity of the natural world around him, which was to set the tone for his later life. Or, as he put it, “I was fortunate to discover that my early experiences with the many animals, plants and insects around me, had set me very broad parameters.”
He went on to explain that his academic and scientific awakening occurred at the very forward thinking Polytechnic of Central London, later to become the University of Westminster, where he studied life sciences. Winser was deeply inspired by the writings of Austrian zoologist Konrad Lorenz, a 1973 Nobel Prize winner who was to tease him with the determination that, “nature is so complex, we will never understand it.”
Undaunted, the young undergraduate applied, “in hope more than confidence,” to join an expedition to the Gunung Mulu National Park in Sarawak, Borneo, led by the Royal Geographical Society’s Robin Hanbury-Tenison. This was the beginning of a relationship between the august scientific organisation, and an enthusiastic student, that continues to this day, as a fellow of the society.
Gunung Mulu, today is a Unesco protected Natural Heritage site with thousands of visitors annually. However it remains in the same, naturally pristine condition today, as it was when Winser first ventured there, 39 years ago. Wisely, the park’s management enforce strict controls over entry to the resource, and no camping is permitted in order to allow the indigenous tribesmen, the Berawan and Penan, to live their lives as they have for centuries.
This particular natural wonderland is perpetuated in a magnificent 1978 BBC natural history film, ‘The Mysteries of the Green Mountain,’ and covers 20 years of exploration of the natural wonderland where “spectacular sandstone and limestone mountains, deep ravines, rainforests, mangrove swamps and incredible, endless underground caves over its 55,000 hectares, accommodated 111 scientists from 11 different countries during that first expedition. I was hooked,” said Winser as he gazed into the distance, as if recalling those early days.
Key global scientific experiences in many countries have left a lasting impression on Winser include the Karakoram Project, in Northern Pakistan, where their team measured the glacial movement of the Indian and Asian tectonic plates. What intrigued him in this area was the remarkable ability of the houses built in the region to absorb the surface movement caused by the thousands of seismic events caused by the geological movements, and he maintains an interest in their engineering.
Of course, he is passionate about the early Wahiba Sands project, and there struck up an affinity, along with colleague, geographer Dr Roderic Dutton, OBE, for the many mysteries of the Omani natural history environment, and Said Jabber Hilays al Wahibi, the original project guide, with whom he has established a lifelong friendship. Winser’s passion and wonder is most evident, as he talks about this unique sand sea, its ability to change in the blink of an eye, and to support the thousands of various life forms in what just, to the layman, looks like a sea of sand.
Of course, the duo of Dr’s Dutton and Winser are well-known to much of the environmental and conservation community in Oman. They have arranged and hosted the Oman Natural Heritage Lectures at the Royal Geographical Society in London, over the last two years, where home grown entities Dr Saif al Shaqsi, Hadi al Hikmani, Abdulaziz al Husseini and Aida al Jabri have presented Oman to the global scientific community with such aplomb.
They surely take encouragement from His Majesty Sultan Qaboos commitment to protecting the Sultanate’s unique natural heritage with the simple yet effective reminder that, “Conservation is a shared responsibility,” and Winser commented with a smile that for those two years he had watched in awe and respect as the Omani conservationists, “who unashamedly wear their hearts on their sleeves, engage so well with their audience, are so proud, passionate, and committed, that Rod (Dr Dutton) and myself share a vindication of our love of, and support for, Oman.”
Ever present too, is the continued support of the Omani government, through the National Field Research Centre for Environmental Conservation and the Office for the Conservation of the Environment. Winser, Dutton, and their many colleagues are proud to be working with a new generation of conservation leaders in Oman, who have support for, awareness of, and concern for, the ecosystems and biodiversity of the region by locally based business and commercial entities “as we seek to achieve a balance between the best of the past, and the best of the future.”
In seeking global solutions to the challenges of climate change, global warming, and the myriad of other environmental issues that confront us, Winser is adamant that no country is doing enough, towards saving nature. “We must respect our planet, and our local environments as the first step towards saving nature,” he told me, “and in doing so, we give ourselves the best chance for nature to do what it has always done best, to safeguard ourselves, our children, and those who come after us.”
“Ironically,” he continued, “President Trump’s rejection of the Paris Climate Accord has probably been a good thing, as it has revitalized support for the 173 signatories to date. The world is not so much reacting with indignation, as purpose, and that story is far from over!” The steel and resolve necessary to survive in harsh conditions, for long periods of time, and the strength of character to beat the odds, clear and present.
“I’m very much an ordinary person, who has been privileged to be a part of some wondrous achievements and discoveries in this great global scheme of things,” says this very English gentleman, who relaxes to the sounds, not of music as we know it, but the soothing forest sounds of musician and naturalist Bernie Krause, celebrating, living and loving nature, with the nurture of a caring father. Not then, just a gentleman, but a gentle man.