Walker was born and raised in Zimbabwe, obtained his first degree in agriculture in South Africa, and his Ph.D. in ecology in Sakatchewan, Canada, in 1968.
His interests are in ecosystem function and dynamics, particularly in regard to resilience of tropical savannas and rangelands. He lectured at the University of Zimbabwe for six years and was then Professor of Botany and Director of the Centre for Resource Ecology at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg until 1985, when he moved to Australia as Chief of the CSIRO Division of Wildlife and Ecology. He stood down from that position in 1999.
He was leader of the International Decade of the Tropics Program on Responses of Savannas to Stress and Disturbance from 1984 to 1990, and of the Global Change and Terrestrial Ecosystems Project of the IGBP from 1989 to 1998, and is a past Chair of the Board of the Beijer International Institute for Ecological Economics in the Swedish Academy of Science.
He has co-authored two books, edited seven, written over 150 scientific papers and is on the editorial boards of five international journals. He received the Ecological Society of Australia's Gold Medal for 1999. He is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering.
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