Image: ANNIE GELLATLY
In late October 2000, Scientific American writer Sarah Simpson finds herself seated at a conference table in Steve Irwin's childhood home. The Crocodile Hunter himself sits across from her, explaining how his father built this house in 1970. Now it has become one of the administrative buildings for Australia Zoo, which Irwin's parents established and which he now directs together with his wife, Terri.
Irwin asks his guest whether she saw his picture in yesterday's edition of the local newpaper. A regional college was using his growing fame to attract international students. The ensuing discussion about Irwin's reputation sets up the first question of the interview:
SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN: Why do you think you're so popular?
STEVE: Nothing to do with my looks, that's for sure! [laughing] Yeah, I normally get a big croc out in the foreground of any filming.
You know what I reckon it is? My belief is that what comes across on the television is a capture of my enthusiasm and my passion for wildlife. Since I was a boy, from this house, I was out rescuing crocodiles and snakes. My mum and dad were very passionate about that and, I was lucky enough to go along. The first crocodile I ever caught was at nine years of age, and it was a rescue. So now what happens is the cameras follow me around and capture exactly what I've been doing since I was a boy. Only now we have a team of, you know, like 73 of us, and it's gone beyond that.
As the audience, I want you to come with me, right? So we get cameras, every one of us, if we've got a four- or five-man film crew, including myself and Terri. Every one of us can use a camera. I have one in my green backpack that I pull out for the hard-core shots where you've gotta get right in there, so the camera's always right there, in there, while I'm doing my thing. So when I'm talking to the camera, I'm talking to you, in your living room.
We've evolved from sitting back on our tripods and shooting wildlife films like they have been shot historically, which doesn't work for us. So, now it's not just, "Oh look, there's a cheetah making a kill." I want to take you to the cheetah. I want to get in there as close as I can to that cheetah. You'll see me in Namibia getting attacked by a female cheetah, because I didn't know she had cubs, but the cameras are right there in a four-wheel-drive, filming me. She's "grrraagh!" putting mock-charges on, and you get that overwhelming sensation that you're there, that you're with me.
SA: And what do you think your zany attitude does for the viewers?
STEVE: It excites them, which helps me to educate. I believe that education is all about being excited about something. Seeing passion and enthusiasm helps push an educational message. That's the main aim in our entire lives is to promote education about wildlife and wilderness areas, save habitats, save endangered species, etc. So, if we can get people excited about animals, then by crikey, it makes it a heck of a lot easier to save them.
My field is with apex predators, hence your crocodiles, your snakes, your spiders. And then of course you've got lions, tigers, bears. Great big apex predatorsthey're the species that I enjoy the most. That's where my passion lies. Historically, people have seen them as evil, ugly monsters that kill people. Take the crocodile, for example, my favorite animal. There are 23 species. Seventeen of those species are rare or endangered. They're on the way out, no matter what anyone does or says, you know.
So, my tactic with conservation of apex predators is to get people excited and take them to where they live. Don't hit anyone with a big stick and say, "Don't clear habitats," "Don't do this, don't do that." I'm a realist. I understand that we've got to have trees to build houses, we've got to have roads, we've got to have farming, we've got to have grazing. But I sincerely and vehemently oppose "sustainable use," where people think they can farm crocodiles and kill them, and turn them into boots, bags and belts. Killing any wild animal will never save it, regardless of what anyone says.
Ahead to Part 2: Protecting Wildlife in His Own Backyard
Back to Meet the Crocodile Hunter