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Part 8: Coping with Habitat Destruction

Interview with Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin

Image: ANNIE GELLATLY

SAVING THE DEVIL. The Irwins are looking to buy land in Tasmania to help save the habitat of Tasmanian devils like this one, which currently lives at the Australia Zoo.

SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN: What can be done to curtail habitat destruction in countries like Indonesia?

STEVE: Currently it's incurable. But our shows are going over there.

SA: You mean the habitat destruction is incurable?

STEVE: How are we going to stop it when the majority of people are below the poverty line and many have got disease? And there's a lot of problems in the government, with the corruption and stuff that has been going on. And the people are killing each other down in East Timor. Wherever you've got this in-house fighting, crikey, habitat's all of a sudden, "Yeah, who gives a rip."

EDUCATE THE CHILDREN

TERRI: What we found, for example, [in East Timor] was a lot of focus just on building things. And making our contribution to the church "Saving Sacred Crocodiles"]. We were very proud of that, but then what people are forgetting is that [coping with habitat destruction in a region like this] is a very long-term process.

Everyone's worried about feeding the children and clothing the children and medicating the children, but they're forgetting that they're children. So we took rubber snakes and squeaky crocodiles, and now all of a sudden the children are finding the little squeaky crocodiles are their fun things. They held on to them, they would trade them for a little snake, they were proud. We didn't give them little teddy bears and cars. We gave them little animals to be proud of and excited about. I think that it is a long process, but that it is a start. And like with our shows, we're not cramming it down their heads, it's becoming cool, and it's a whole new thought process.

We've dealt with countries, like Fiji, where some of the tribes we've worked with have no word for conservation. They have no concept for numbers above a hundred. So it's a completely different approach. So from here on, with our third-world projects, we are looking at the people as well as the animals. And when we ask, "How do you save a habitat?" maybe the first rule is letting [the local people] have full bellies and healthy children. And then starting to make the animals a cool thing to be proud of instead of something to simply consume or make money out of.

STEVE: In 30 years' time, those squeaky little crocodiles that we gave them are going to pay huge dividends.

TERRI: It seems trivial, but it's a starting point. You've got to completely change the culture.

TIME-CAPSULE ENDANGERED ANIMALS

STEVE: Excellent point. In addition to that, in the big scheme of Indonesia, where there seems to be such rapid habitat destruction, there is a new zoo strategy, which here in Australia we're taking very seriously. It's a regional approach, and Indonesia is part of our region. So any of the animals that are endangered or likely to become extinct because of habitat destruction, we're pulling them into zoos¿predominantly rescuing the animals that are going to die anyway¿and housing them, learning every single detail about how we can breed them and establishing satellite colonies of that species so that we're ready when the cure does come, when we can rebuild habitat. That's what we're doing.

SA: Is Australia Zoo part of that regional effort?

STEVE: Yeah, yeah. All of the good zoos in our world are taking regional approaches. Those that aren't doing it need to pick up their act or get out. Because that's what a zoo needs to be. We have to be educational facilities with the ability to put animals back in the wild when the critical stage is over.

TERRI: That's why we're talking about time-capsuling so many turtle species, because you've got such a market for the terrapins throughout Asia for medicine, for food and so forth. Wild ones are better than captive ones so you can't farm them. And when it comes to sustainable use, it blows it out the window because everyone is greedy. So, like communism, it works on paper but in real life it doesn't work.

Instead of taking a certain number of turtles every year, let's take 'em all out of the wild. And lets keep them for 10 years or 100 years or 300 years, until the thought process in Asia has changed and we are no longer looking at turtles for medicine. So on a band-aid-type proposition, let's time-capsule these animals.

PROTECT WILDLIFE HABITATS

TERRI: The third stage [of our conservation approach] is that there isn't any animal in a new exhibit that you're going to see in the Australia Zoo today that we don't have a habitat for. Right now we've got Tasmanian devils.

SA: That you buy habitat for?

TERRI: We're looking at purchasing habitat in Tasmania to preserve these special creatures. It will continue like that wherever we can. Use [animals in captivity] as education, interaction, breeding research¿all of that. Conserve the habitat, and then educate the people. It's this three-prong approach. We no longer want to make the responsibility of the zoo as simply having the animals on display for your education and entertainment. It has to go far beyond that. What you see here is the tip of a very big iceberg.

Back to Part 7: Saving Sacred Crocodiles in East Timor

Ahead to Part 9: Fighting Sustainable Use


Back to Meet the Crocodile Hunter

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