Brian van Wilgen studied Forestry at Stellenbosch University, graduating with a BSc degree in 1974 and an Honours degree in 1977. He completed a Masters and PhD degrees in Botany at the University of Cape Town in 1980 and 1985 respectively.
Between 1974 and 1990 he was associated, in various capacities, with the now defunct South African Forestry Research Institute (SAFRI) and was based at Jonkershoek Forestry Research Centre outside Stellenbosch. When SAFRI become incorporated into the CSIR, he moved to the CSIR campus in Stellenbosch where he was based until 2013. Upon retirement from the CSIR in 2013, Brian took up a professorship at Stellenbosch University associated with the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence for Invasion Biology.
His career as an applied ecologist in Africa spans 40 years during which he has had a major impact in many ways. He has worked on the ecology and management of invasive alien plants, and in particular on the use of fire in managing invasions, the population dynamics of invasive plants, water use by invasive plants, the biological control of invasive plants, studies on resource economics, and the development of research and management strategies. His other main interest has been the ecology and management of ecosystems using fire. On this front he has worked mainly in fynbos, grassland and savanna ecosystems in Southern Africa, but also in the USA, Argentina, Australia and the Indian Ocean islands. Much of his recent work has been aimed at integrating research results towards the design and implementation of environmental policy, including the measurement and consideration of ecosystem services.
He is author or co-author of over 250 publications, including three books. In 2008, he was award a DSc degree by Stellenbosch University. He has received numerous awards, including the National Science and Technology Forum annual award for an outstanding individual contribution to science, engineering and technology and the South African National Parks annual award for corporate contributions to conservation by an individual, both in 2010.