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Part 9: Fighting Sustainable Use

Interview with Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin

Image: ANNIE GELLATLY

SIGNS EVERYWHERE. The Irwins spell out their conservation message throughout the Australia Zoo¿even on the trash bins in the parking lot.

SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN: Do you think sustainable use might be an advantage for certain regions of the world? I know of someone who was working in Zimbabwe 10 years ago, and he thought that the only way to get the villagers to not want to kill the elephants was to allow them to harvest ivory in a sustainable way.

STEVE: I believe sustainable use is the greatest propaganda in wildlife conservation at the moment. This propaganda has been established by some very credible, very powerful players, and it seems to me that people are using the camouflage of science to make money out of animals. There are people currently saying that they're whaling for scientific purposes. That is just . . . if I think about it too long I'll cry, mate, because I've seen it and it's not working and it's a lie. So, whenever they're killing our animals and calling it sustainable use, I'll fight it because this is just my own personal opinion.

SA: How would you get people, like the villagers in Zimbabwe, involved with wildlife conservation, then?

STEVE: The way we're doing it is to get people passionate and proud of the wildlife in their backyard. What you're talking about is strictly people killing elephants in their backyard. I will never blame the villager in Zimbabwe for going out and killing an elephant and taking its ivory to feed his family. His family does have to be fed, but all that sustainable use is doing is promoting illegal poaching of wildlife around the world! For goodness' sakes, so people can have fancy chopsticks and make stamps? What the heck do we need ivory for?

Back in the '70s we finally got on top of people killing and wearing spotted cat species. Only now they've turned to an animal that has been known to kill people, and that's the crocodile. My question is: what the heck do we need crocodile-skin boots for? We don't need that crap! And there are people out there right now killing this world's elephants. For what? Sustainable use? My goodness, what do we need ivory and croc-skins for? We don't need them. We've already got cows, chickens, turkeys, ducks, sheep. We've already got domestic animals, we don't need to kill and eat our wildlife or wear it. I will die fighting sustainable use because I believe it's propaganda, and I'd like to see it stopped.

I don't have answers or a cure for all the world's problems, but this is my belief that if you watch a Croc Hunter episode, what you're seeing are some people who are very passionate and enthusiastic about their work. We believe in what we do. And so if you come away with that, with an awareness of wildlife, then it will be that much easier for us and the academic people of our world to help conserve wilderness and wildlife areas¿which in essence is going to save mankind.

Because if we have polluted seas, no whales, no rain forests, fewer trees, we'll never breathe oxygen, we'll never be able to drink the water. So the human race will just be destined to an end. So by watching my shows, you're actually helping the human race. That's what I believe.

TERRI: Can you talk about the gorilla-friendly bananas?

STEVE: Go ahead, sweetheart.

TERRI: Steve has some great ideas up his sleeve. Personally, I would pay more for a banana if I knew that the farmer allowed a certain number of his bananas to be taken by gorillas instead of shooting the gorillas that came down and ravaged his crops. So we think that there should be a global marketing campaign for wealthy nations to directly support poorer nations by promoting gorilla-friendly bananas. I'd happily pay up the wazoo for a gorilla-friendly banana, because I know I'm helping the farmer that didn't shoot the gorilla.

This is one of the ideas that makes me think Steve is just embarking on his wildlife campaign. He's 38 years old; he's still got a few years left in him.

STEVE: I haven't hit mid-stride yet. I've got a long way to go, I really do.

TERRI: If we're going to be doing movies and bigger productions and trying to reach more people, and if we do things smart, then let's make enough money that we can then promote these ideas and put them into practice. Eventually, I think sustainable use will be a thing of the past. Instead of killing [animals] to "help" them, we'll actually leave them alone, and all of us who dig that idea and who can afford it can pay more and help the local farmers.

STEVE: You're gonna get a lot of flack when you put this in Scientific American. People are just gonna go off.

SA: What do you predict they're going to say?

STEVE: Oh, mate, that "Steve Irwin doesn't know what he's talking about," "That's one man's view against a successful sustainable use, blah blah blah." But what Terri's talking about, and what we believe, is that we've got to make a difference here. What we need to do instead of killing gorillas is we need to have more habitat. How do we get more habitat? Well, we've got to get it into the farming arena. The farmers hate the gorillas. They'll actually kill the gorillas because they come into the farms and eat their bananas.

So who do we need to help? We've got to help the farmers. If we help the farmers, then we help the gorillas. The farmer loses 50 percent of his bananas to gorillas, but suddenly the bananas that are left are worth a heck of a lot of money, because gorillas are coming in. And we back that idea with our gift, which is vision. So I go there to the banana farm and film the gorillas and get whacked over the head by a big silver-backed gorilla and everyone wins. It's a no-risk situation.

Whether it be the grazier in Texas or the wheat-and-sheep farmer in western Australia or the banana farmer in Cameroon, that is my mission.

SA: Is your plan to integrate wildlife habitats with farmland working?

STEVE: Oh, we're on a roll.

TERRI: If all the wildlife products are illegal, enforcement will become possible instead of impossible.

STEVE: Yeah. Here, here.

TERRI: And then everything we do with the animals becomes a positive thing instead of this "oh no, we have to kill 35 rhinos instead of helping them." See what I mean? But I'm talking it's gonna take 20 years to get it get it off the ground because it's going to be a global marketing program that will cost us millions of dollars getting everyone's opinions behind us, like they did with dolphins and tuna.

SA: I'd buy gorilla-friendly bananas.

STEVE: Why wouldn't you, mate? One way every single person can contribute to conservation is by buying a product that is animal friendly. And if we don't have open debate about these issues, then crikey, how are we going to move quick? We've got to move quick in this world because we're running out of it. We're running out of this world, and I want for my children to be able to walk into the bush and still see oragutans. If we can't have that, then it's going to be a sad world to bring up kids.

Back to Part 8: Coping with Habitat Destruction

Ahead to Part 10: Steve and His Crocodiles


Back to Meet the Crocodile Hunter

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