Watling was born in Uganda, spent most of his childhood in East Africa and first went to Fiji in 1967. He studied zoology at Bristol University and then obtained a doctorate at Cambridge, his doctoral thesis concerning the red-vented bulbul, a bird introduced to Fiji where it is an agricultural pest. He has worked in the Lake Manyara and Serengeti National Parks in Tanzania and with the World Wildlife Fund's Conservation Indonesia Programme as well as at many placea throughout the south-west Pacific and south-east Asian regions. He has also served as editor of Domodomo, the journal of the Fiji Museum.
Books authored or coauthored by Watling include:
- 1982 – Birds of Fiji, Tonga and Samoa. (Illustrated by Chloe Talbot-Kelly). Millwood: New Zealand. ISBN 0-908582-36-6
- 1986 – Mai Veikau: Tales of Fijian Wildlife. Fiji Times: Suva.
- 1999 – Pocket Poster Guide to the Birds of Fiji. Author: Fiji. ISBN 9829030024
- 2001 – A Guide to the Birds of Fiji and Western Polynesia: Including American Samoa, Niue, Samoa, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu and Wallis and Futuna. Author: Fiji. ISBN 9829030040
- 2005 – Palms of the Fiji Islands. (With George Bennett). Environmental Consultants: Suva. ISBN 9829047024
- 2006 – Guide to the Birds of the Kingdom of Tonga. Author: Fiji. ISBN 9789829030078
- "Richard John Watling". CV. Environmental Consultants Fiji. 2010-08-30. Retrieved 2012-08-19.
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