The sudden and tragic death of environmentalist/pop-culture star Steve Irwin has left a void in the hearts of naturalists, urbanites and statesmen alike. Australian Prime Minister John Howard stated, “Australia has lost a wonderful and colorful son,” after learning that the gregarious ambassador passed away after a fatal encounter with a Bull Ray in the Great Barrier Reef. The Crocodile Hunter’s enthusiasm, intimate handling of deadly creatures and liberal use of Australian slang garnered enough attention that his Animal Planet show aired in 120 countries, leading to a starring role in a major motion picture and to numerous cameo appearances in other films. The omnipresent star of Animal Planet’s most successful show, Irwin is often credited with the very survival of the Discovery Channel’s once-fledgling network. Irwin’s death has been portrayed around the world as just another tragic end to one of humanity’s vibrant characters, but the world community has lost much more than a positive personality in his death.
Amidst a period of environmentally motivated anxiety due to global warming, Steve Irwin’s passing marks the end of organism-focused conservation in mainstream media. Gone are the days when Discovery Channel audiences marveled at exotic creatures through the lenses of journalists and naturalists for hours on end, as can-we-survive a disaster programming pervades the major time-slots. The mainstream focus of conservation has completely shifted from ecosystem preservation to “let my grandchildren survive” apocalypse planning. Even the Animal Planet has moved away from wildlife documentary, featuring reality programming that takes us into the precarious lives of domestic pets. While the occasional “wild animal” program makes an appearance on the network, these shows are mostly negligible in its conservation efforts, as in the show Most Extreme which depicts infantile vignettes of only the most unusual characteristics in nature. It’s not as if consumers are unreceptive to wildlife documentaries, as Animal Planet’s critically acclaimed summer success, Meerkat Manor, demonstrated. Nevertheless, “wild” programming has become fewer and further in between.
Pioneers of wildlife preservation, namely the producers of programs like Wild Discovery and people like Jacques Cousteau and Jack Hannah, fought hard to bring the appreciation of nature into living rooms worldwide. Unfortunately, these attempts only inspired lukewarm responses in popular culture. It was Steve Irwin’s charm and insatiable passion that brought wildlife conservation to the forefront of popular environmentalism in the late 1990’s through the millennium. Playful but vigorously purposeful, Irwin greeted Americans in their homes as an entertainer and also as a guardian of nature. He reminded us that much more existed beyond our limestone and steel habitats. Irwin pushed harder than his forbearers, constantly reminding his viewers that land had to be preserved and pollution avoided to protect humanity’s only tangible treasure. Along with the naturalists that came before him, he tried to teach us to conserve not just for our sake, but also for the future of all the ecosystems around us.
This consciousness and appreciation of the natural world would have helped us avoid the ecological disasters we are faced with today. Has the wild lost its value to society? Must we be confronted with our own peril to raise a brow? It has truly become the sad reality that an ex-Vice President had to slap the issue of impending doom onto the faces of Americans to bring environmental issues to the forefront of mainstream culture. Time will tell if Steve Irwin left an indelible mark on the conservation habits of society, but it is already fair to say he made one of the most valiant efforts toward preservation in the history of mankind.
The Crocodile Hunter was different. Steve Irwin had his very own scrub python at the age of six. At nine, he handled crocodiles. In the prime of his career he purchased tracts of land in Australia, Vanuatu, Fiji and the United States just to preserve them. Finally, at the age of 44, he leaves us as the last larger-than-life crusader for the wild.