In addition to a wife losing a loving husband and two children losing a doting dad, earlier this month the animal world lost a true conservationist when Steve Irwin, aka the Crocodile Hunter, was killed by a stingray while diving off the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
While some saw Irwin as nothing more than a khaki-clad kook who risked life and limb wrangling reptiles, he was, in fact, a brilliant naturalist on many levels.
Many first became aware of Irwin around 1992, when his nature shows began being aired on television, but his story began long before that. As documentaries following his death have shown, Irwin was enthusiastic about animals from the time he a little boy.
This, in itself, is not entirely uncommon. Many children find wonder in the animal world, and it is quite common for animals to be used when teaching young boys and girls basic concepts. Ask any 5-year-old what “Z” stands for and they will almost automatically reply “zebra.”
Unfortunately, as kids gets older, they seem to grow away from learning about animals and the environment. Not Irwin, though. His passion for nature grew exponentially over the years, and so did his body of knowledge.
Irwin had a particular affinity for species that fared poorly in the public’s perception. He became involved with a crocodile management program in the mid-1980s and tried to find a solution to the problem of rogue or nuisance crocodiles that didn’t involve killing them, as had been the norm.
Irwin went on to take over the Queensland Reptile Park the wildlife facility started by his parents, now known as Australia Zoo and continued to spread his message of conservation for all creatures, even potentially dangerous ones, such as crocodiles and venomous snakes.
This is where his real genius showed through, because not only did he have a tremendous body of knowledge locked inside his head, but he also knew how to share that knowledge with others. Young or old, city slicker or backcountry adventurer, a complete animal novice or lifelong conservationist, Irwin found a way to build a bridge and teach everyone something.
As Steven Sanderson, president of the Wildlife Conservation Society, said, “One of the greatest challenges we face as conservationists is people don’t care.” Irwin overcame that. “He made people crazy about encounters with the wild,” Sanderson said.
Not all agreed with his methods. Some stated his hands-on methods with reptiles were not in the best interest of the animals.
Irwin saw this as a wind of change for the better, though, as he told the Los Angles Times three years ago. “Here we are in the year 2003 and people are wondering whether I am bothering the chameleons or bothering a crocodile. Isn’t that fantastic? Ten years ago, mate, people would go, ‘That’s just a slimy, stinky reptile.’ Haven’t we changed?” he said.
Some also felt that Irwin’s hands-on approach was nothing more than circus-like antics that taught only animals that are dangerous are interesting.
The public’s fascination with dangerous animals can’t be denied. After all, how many people reading this know what a tiger, cheetah and lion are, and can probably list a few facts about them and where they’re from? Probably most, because of how much information is available about these charismatic carnivores.
How many people could say and do that same thing for okapi, duikers, kakapos and gharials? Probably few, which is a shame because of how much more endangered these species are, but a bigger shame is that even fewer people likely will take the time to find out anything about these animals even after reading this, much less contributing in any way to their conservation.
However, Irwin can’t be blamed for the public’s apathy. He spent years combating it and, in the end, literally devoted his life to the conservation cause. Hopefully, what he started will continue long after he is gone, since Irwin used much of his career earnings to establish conservation organizations and buy land around the world that he set aside for wildlife protection.
While the animal world will not be the same without this wildlife warrior, hopefully others inspired by him can carry on the tradition he started. As the Animal Planet promos since his death state, “Thanks for everything mate. We’ll take it from here.”
Joseph Robertia is a reporter at the Clarion.
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