Australia Day honours: Scientist Norman McKenzie appointed AM

Norman McKenzie during a 1987 Kimberley rainforest survey.
Norman McKenzie during a 1987 Kimberley rainforest survey.

IN a 45-year career, retired scientist Norman McKenzie worked copious 18-hour days obsessed with conserving the natural beauty of WA.

But he does not think he deserves to be appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) today.

No doubt there are many who would disagree with his modest self-assessment.

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The Edgewater resident (71) is one of 175 honourees nationwide and just 10 in WA to receive the post-nominal title AM.

He is the only local resident to attain the honour, which is a level above receiving a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM).

Mr McKenzie, a zoologist, retired from the WA Department of Parks and Wildlife two years ago, ending a near half-century tenure.

Norman McKenzie, today. Picture: Bruce Hunt

He was an important point of reference in the creation of many of WA’s major national parks, working in areas such as the Great Sandy Desert, the Kimberley, the Pilbara, the Great Victoria Desert, the Goldfields and the Wheatbelt.

“Getting a large national park or nature reserve created for the future and for the plants and animals of the state… that’s rewarding,” he said.

“It’s rewarding because you know their values and unless people make an effort to protect them, those sorts of landscapes can degrade very quickly.”

The septuagenarian holds a particular fascination for WA’s bats. On his arrival in the state in the early ’70s, he began to study the quirks of the mysterious creatures, saying “no one was very interested in them at the time”.

In recent years, he collaborated with an aeronautical engineer to understand their flight capabilities and hunting behaviours.

“They’re the only group of our mammals that hasn’t been badly affected by human settlement in Australia,” he said.

“Bats can fly, which makes them about 10 times more efficient in hunting for food compared to mammals that run on the ground or climb.”

His intrigue led him to compile an important library of WA bat calls.

In an indication of his expertise in a variety of fields, Mr McKenzie remains a voluntary member of a committee that helps a community of indigenous people manage their title lands in the northern Kimberley.

“Indigenous communities across northern Australia have regained control of most of their traditional country and are taking responsibility for its care,” he said.

“It’s a pleasure to help with that because I spent so much bush-time in the Kimberley during my 45-year career as a field zoologist.”

Reflecting on his working life, he said it had been “lots of fun” with “lots of adventures” to some remote parts of WA.

It also came at a cost to family time, with Mr McKenzie regularly away from home.

He considers this dedication a likely factor in him gaining the title of AM today.

“My wife and family sacrificed a lot because I wasn’t here, or if I was here my mind was focused on something else,” he said.