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Irwin a powerful voice for conservation

Published: 11:04AM Wednesday September 06, 2006 Source: AAP

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 Conservancy.

"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.

Rough-hewn and watchable

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 said.

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."