Vale Margaret Thorsborne AO

margaret_1997Passionate and devoted conservationist, Margaret Thorsborne AO, died last October. Margaret joined ARCS in 1985 and remained a loyal supporter until her recent ill health.

Born in 1927, Margaret grew up in Brisbane and later, after training as a nurse, moved to Southport on the Gold Coast. Margaret has recorded her great admiration for, and inspiration from, her parents who both served in World War I, her mother as a nurse on the Western Front and her father at Gallipoli.

In 1963, Margaret married Arthur Thorsborne and together they became involved in the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland (WPSQ) which had been formed in 1962 by poet Judith Wright, wildflower artist Kathleen McArthur, naturalist David Fleay and founder of Jacaranda Press, Brian Clouston. They were instrumental in forming the Gold Coast branch of WPSQ.

In 1964, the Thorsbornes made their first visit to North Queensland, camping on Hinchinbrook Island. That sparked their devotion to protection of the island and the associated coastal environment. They moved to live permanently at Meunga Creek north of Cardwell and built a cottage in the rainforest called ‘Galmara’, Aboriginal for poet, singer of songs.

In 1965, Judith Wright, artist John Busst and rainforest ecologist Len Webb began a campaign to save the Great Barrier Reef, initially from fertiliser mining on Ellison Reef and later from oil drilling supported by Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Margaret became involved in the campaign as well as other campaigns to conserve wildlife habitat in the region.

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Margaret holding a self-portait by John Busst beside a plaque placed in his memory by Judith Wright at Ninney Rise, the Busst’s home near Bingil Bay

The Thorsbornes became interested in the fate of the Pied Imperial-Pigeon. These birds nest on offshore islands and fly to the mainland to feed. In 1965, the Thorsbornes began counts of the Pied Imperial-Pigeon on North Brook Island, an exercise that became an annual event and which continues to this day.

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Margaret and Arthur Thorsborne counting pigeons at North Brook Island

The count of the pigeons was 4692 in 1965-66 but declined to 1451 in 1968-69 largely as a result of shooting. It is recorded that up to 1100 birds were shot at a time but large-scale shooting stopped in 1968. Populations have since recovered with current counts greater than 40,000 but their presence at various sites is affected by cyclone damage. Dr John Winter is currently working to ensure that the counts are established on a permanent and sound scientific basis so that they will continue to provide invaluable data on these birds long into the future.

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Margaret and Dr John Winter counting pigeons at North Brook Island
Photo: Bryony Barnett

Margaret has been involved in a wide range of conservation activities including efforts to educate people in the significance of the local environment and the importance of protecting it. She was particularly involved in cassowary conservation, collecting seeds of their food plants to replant seedlings, one of her many habitat restoration activities. She was also involved in conservation efforts to protect the endangered Mahogany Glider.

The Thorsbornes were devoted to the protection of Hinchinbrook Island and documented the island’s values in their book, Hinchinbrook Island: The Land Time Forgot, which was published in 1988. Arthur died in 1991 and in recognition of his contribution to conservation, the Thorsborne Trust was established. The Trust provides support for a wide range of conservation activities.

The Thorsbornes are commemorated by the Thorsborne Trail, a 32-km walking track along the eastern side of Hinchinbrook Island. Sadly, the Thorsborne Trail is one of the sites chosen by the Queensland Government to establish privately owned commercial accommodation in national parks.

In the early 1990s, Margaret faced one of the most challenging times of her life when developer Keith Williams took over a failed resort development and marina, Port Hinchinbrook, at Oyster Point on the shores of Hinchinbrook Channel. The development involved destruction of mangroves and dredging of the channel with a likely impact on the dugong population within the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. Margaret ‘blockaded’ the mangrove site facing the bulldozers in a daily vigil.

In 2011, Margaret was awarded the honour of Officer in the Order of Australia “For distinguished service to conservation and the environment through advocacy roles for the protection and preservation of wildlife and significant natural heritage sites in Australia, as a supporter of scientific research, and to the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland”.

Margaret was well known for her hand-painted envelopes carrying a conservation message and we appreciated receiving her annual subscription in one of her envelopes, at times including a paper cut-out of a white pigeon.

Conservationist and close friend of Margaret, Liz Downes, concluded her obituary for Margaret with the following:

Margaret lived her life simply, with grace and humility, in absolute accord with her conservation principles – yet her influence was felt far beyond local boundaries and indeed, where her work advanced the cause of threatened species, migratory birds or World Heritage areas it was of national and international importance. Margaret represented the epitome of what it is to be passionate, inspiring and committed and her life will long remain as an outstanding example of service to country and community.

Keith Scott

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