September 5, 2006

“Croc hunter” was powerful voice for conservation

By Deborah Zabarenko, Environment Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With his trademark cry of "Crikey!"
and his ebullient persona, television naturalist Steve Irwin
was an atypical but powerful voice for animal conservation,
wildlife experts said on Tuesday.

Irwin, known to viewers as the "Crocodile Hunter," died on
Monday after a stingray's serrated barb pierced his heart while
he was filming at the Great Barrier Reef off Australia.

His talents as an entertainer served the conservationists'
cause well, said M. Sanjayan, lead scientist for The Nature

"I absolutely think he counts as a naturalist and he counts
as a conservationist," Sanjayan said in a telephone interview.
"And people who tell you otherwise are just simply jealous of
the success he's had."

Sanjayan said most professional conservationists appreciate
those like Irwin who "charismatically bring conservation to
life," but he questioned whether raising public awareness is
enough to make any measurable difference to wild animals and
their habitat.

Irwin's animal programs often featured the "Crocodile
Hunter" wrestling snakes or crocodiles, but also offered
messages about saving the natural environment where such
creatures live.

His approach was different from more traditional wildlife
documentaries, which kept filmmakers and observers at a safe
distance without close interaction with animals.


Ginette Hemley, vice president for conservation at World
Wildlife Fund, praised Irwin for popularizing the notion of
protecting animals even as he wrestled with them onscreen.

Irwin was the antithesis of the mild-mannered natural
scientist, quietly doing field work, Hemley said by telephone.

"He certainly was rough-hewn. He was a larger-than-life
personality. ... He was eminently watchable," Hemley said. "For
that reason I think he only helped advance the cause that we're
committed to, which is conservation."

She agreed with Sanjayan that Irwin's conservation impact
would to difficult to measure, but Hemley was gratified that
television viewers tuned in to the "Crocodile Hunter" rather
than programs unconcerned with protecting wildlife.

Rod Mast, a marine biologist and vice president of the
environmental group Conservation International, said Irwin's
prime conservation role was to influence people.

"The real issue in conservation is changing human attitudes
about nature and human behaviors in relation to nature, and one
of the things he did superbly was to make wildlife cool," Mast

Sanjayan said he feared Irwin's legacy might be numerous
copycat programs like the "Crocodile Hunter," but Mast said
even these could have positive effects. "I don't have a problem
with that," Mast said. "The more wildlife you see on TV, the
more people get excited about wildlife."