There was nothing conventional about Steve Irwin. He lived at a zoo in Queensland, he travelled the world making wildlife documentaries and he had strong opinions on conservation which often put him at odds with the experts.
He died yesterday while filming: struck in the chest by a stingray.
Two years ago Irwin was investigated by the Australian Environment Department for getting too close to penguins, a seal and humpback whales while filming a documentary in the Antarctic. After a month-long investigation Prime Minister John Howard announced that no action would be taken, no charge laid. The documentary Ice Breaker was aired on the Animal Planet network. My favorite scene was of Irwin on his stomach skimming down an icy slope looking something like an Emperor penguin with a big grin.
Of course Irwin denied any wrongdoing. He denied that he had got too close to the animals in the Antarctic.
It was not the first time he had been investigated for getting too close to an animal. Earlier the same year he was interviewed by the Office of Workplace Health and Safety for holding his baby son while feeding chicken to a crocodile at his famous zoo. Again he denied any wrong-doing explaining that he was in complete control and that "It's all about perceived danger”.
When Irwin swam over the top of a stingray buried in the sand off Lowe Island in far north Queensland yesterday he presumably thought it would make good footage. There is always the perception of danger when Irwin is close to a wild animal. He was so close that the stingray could strike him in the chest with the serrated barb on its tail. The stingray was presumably acting in self-defence.
The barb lodged in Irwin’s chest and the toxins it injected caused Irwin to die of cardiac arrest. There are only 17 people known to have died from stingray attacks and this may be the only death ever recorded on film.
Steve Irwin will be remembered by the public as a larger-than-life character who taught us about animals, although he had no formal training as a biologist or zoologist.
He became famous through the series Crocodile Hunter in which he always featured in khaki shorts and shirt with his mouth and arms half open in anticipation. He taught the world the catch-phrase “Crikey!” and that Australia has lots of crocodiles.
While Steve Irwin will be remembered as a champion of crocodile conservation, he was at odds with leaders of the crocodile conservation program in the Northern Territory.
It is hard to believe there were once fewer than 5,000 saltwater crocodiles in the Northern Territory. The population was decimated in the late 1940s and 1950s by crocodile hunters. A ban was placed on hunting and the exportation of skins in the early 1970s. Crocodile numbers have bounced back and are now estimated at 70,000.
But it didn’t just happen. Ecologist Dr Grahame Webb lead the program to rebuild crocodile numbers through public education and giving crocodiles a commercial value -so that landholders would see them as an economic asset rather than a pest.
In particular landholders were given the opportunity to harvest and sell crocodile eggs and crocodiles each year, under a strict quota system, so it was in their interests to preserve suitable crocodile habitat on farms and in aboriginal reserves. In the Northern Territory 20,000 eggs are sold each year for about $40 each and 600 crocodiles are harvested and sold for about $500 each.
Grahame Webb and the Northern Territory Government have lobbied hard for many years to have the program expanded to include big game hunters from Europe and the United States who would pay $10,000 to shoot a single crocodile. But these rich tourists will only spend the money if they can take the souvenir - the crocodile head and skin - back with them.
The Northern Territory Government asked the Federal Government for approval to export 25 skins from safari-hunted crocodile each year and in this way further increase the commercial value of crocodiles to landholders. Federal Environment Minister Ian Campbell has repeatedly rejected the request on the advice of Steve Irwin. Irwin passionately opposed trade in products from wild animals. He only believed in shooting crocodiles with cameras.
This somewhat romantic approach to wildlife conservation is increasingly opposed by specialists in the field who claim the best chance of saving endangered species across the world is by legalising and regulating trade in accordance with strict quota systems.
Steve Irwin will live on as an Australian icon and his documentaries on wild animals will continue to amaze and amuse us. His up-close and personal approach got us more interested than ever in saving the world’s unique fauna. But pictures can not save animal species from extinction. The survival of tigers in India, freshwater dolphins in China and elephants in Africa may require a less personal and more pragmatic approach to wildlife conservation.
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