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Thanks due to a wild character

By Barry Cohen - posted Wednesday, 6 September 2006

Steve Irwin was the first to admit that while the Yanks adored him, many Australians cringed at his over-the-top caricature of the Australian male. He was Chips Rafferty, Paul Hogan and Mel Gibson rolled into one.

Yet those who knew him said this was not a caricature. It was Steve Irwin. The stream of messages pouring into television and radio testify to the affection of his legion of admirers.

Love him or not, none could be indifferent to him, and many will be shocked and saddened by his death. Irwin devoted his life to spreading the word about Australia and its unique wildlife. He was immensely successful and became our best-known export.


I confess to be one of those who found his presentation somewhat grating but maybe some of this was just jealousy. Fifteen years of building and running a wildlife sanctuary on the central coast of NSW and I could never in my wildest dreams imagine myself wrestling a crocodile. A baby wallaby perhaps, but a crocodile? I don't think so. Fortunately, I was never put to the test.

It is too early, and precise details are not yet available, to determine whether the escapade that led to his death was an example of Irwin taking undue risks or just incredibly bad luck, but there can be no doubt that he pushed the envelope just a little too far on many occasions in the past.

Wrestling crocodiles is not a recommended sport for the masses unless you want to lose weight - and quickly.

Irwin lost some admirers when he held his infant son Bob in his arms while feeding a crocodile at his Australia Zoo. His defence, that his vast experience ensured his son was safe, didn't wash with a lot of people. Putting your own life on the line is one thing, but a stumble then could have been disastrous. It was made clear to him that there should be no repeat performances.

I gained a healthy respect for crocodiles during my period as federal environment minister from 1983-87. Responsible for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, the northern wet tropics (the Daintree) and Kakadu National Park, I spent considerable time in crocodile-infested waters and I can tell you that there is nothing that concentrates the mind more wonderfully than a 5m croc swimming lazily alongside one's puny canoe. The assurances by senior rangers that "she'll be right, mate", do not assuage the fear. I was never confident that the rangers did not have Liberal sympathies.

Sadly, during my watch, five people were taken by crocs in northern Australia, with my most vivid memory being the death of a miner from the Ranger uranium mine who had decided, against all advice, to fish for barramundi on the slipway at Cahills Crossing in Kakadu.


It being the wet season, he was up to his waist in water when taken by a very large crocodile. Suffice to say that nothing could have been worse for his family, who watched in horror at the whole grisly episode.

Did this tragedy alert visitors to the dangers? Not at all. A few months later, while inspecting the area with the director of national parks, Derek Ovington, I was amazed to see a young father wandering nonchalantly along the river bank of the East Alligator River with his two sons, stepping adroitly around signs warning "DANGER - CROCODILES". When I suggested fines should be imposed on those who ignored signs, the press had a field day.

My gripe with Irwin is that while it might be fine for someone with his experience to wrestle with crocs, he is one in 20 million.

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First published in The Australian on September 5, 2006.

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About the Author

Barry Cohen was Minister for the Arts, Heritage and Environment in the Hawke Government from 1983 to 1987. He currently runs an animal sanctuary in Calga, NSW.

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