Burning Forests, Dying Reefs: What Would Steve Irwin Have to Say About the Planet Today?


Burning Forests, Dying Reefs: What Would Steve Irwin Have to Say About the Planet Today?

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

In the early 2000s, I used to spend more time watching Animal Planet and National Geographic than Nickelodeon and Pogo. My obsession with nature documentaries began ever since I learned how to use a TV remote. A world without wildlife shows is not one in which I wish to live; a conservation personality’s death was the first celebrity passing I remember caring about. It was Steve “The Crocodile Hunter” Irwin. However, a part of me is glad Irwin isn’t around, because for a man who spent his life trying to get us to care about the planet, he’d be mortified to see how dire circumstances have become.

In 2006, I was idling away time waiting for somebody to come online on MSN Messenger, when I saw the news that Steve Irwin had died in a freak accident while filming with a stingray for a new show. He was 44. Even though he was a man who spent the best part of his life lovingly wrestling with wild animals that could kill him, the news of his death shocked me. Whenever you watched his shows, Irwin was always so full of ebullient, exuberant life that he seemed undying. It was this contagious energy that he imparted to his viewers, especially the younger ones like me, who took his message about caring for the planet and the creatures we share it with to heart. “Seeing passion and enthusiasm helps push an educational message,” he would say. Perhaps fate decided that that passion and enthusiasm could not be bottled up in an aged body, and claimed him while he was still able to do all the things he loved.

Steve Irwin died young, but it was a life well lived. He spent a little over a decade in the spotlight before his untimely death – a mere fraction of the length of David Attenborough’s career, but his legacy is no less influential. “If you can’t excite people about wildlife, how can you convince them to love, cherish, and protect our wildlife and the environment they live in?” Irwin asked in his memoir The Crocodile Hunter: The Incredible Life and Adventures of Steve and Terri Irwin. Indeed, it was excitement, and even optimism, which characterised Irwin’s approach to conservation and spreading his message. But I can’t help but wonder, with all that we’ve learned about climate change, habitat destruction, and wildlife extinction in the 13 years since his passing, would Irwin be the same jolly optimist?

When Irwin died in 2006, scientists were warning that future generations would suffer the adverse effects of our generation’s environmental follies.

When Irwin died in 2006, scientists were warning that future generations would suffer the adverse effects of our generation’s environmental follies. The apocalypse was on the way, but it was beyond our horizon. But as is the case with weather forecasts, this one turned out to be dead wrong. In recent years, scientists have revised their opinions, and come to the unpleasant conclusion that we might suffer the consequences of our own carbon emissions and polluting ways in our lifetimes. Though it’s no longer trending online, the fires in the Amazon last month were serious red flags indicating that we’re in need of some serious course correction. Its inhabitants – many of them endangered – are in danger. “Expect a significant loss of wildlife,” Roberto Troya, Vice President for Latin America and the Caribbean at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) told CNN. The Amazon contains one in 10 known species on earth, including at least 40,000 plant species and more than 400 mammal, 300 reptile, 400 amphibian and 3,000 freshwater fish species, the report said. 

If the news that the world’s largest rainforest was going up in flames and threatening its ecosystem weren’t enough, then perhaps a paper authored by a Melbourne-based think tank from Irwin’s native Australia would give him pause before his next happy shout of “Crikey!” Published in June this year, it stated that climate change poses a “near- to mid-term existential threat to human civilisation”, before the ominous prediction that society could begin to see the fallout of widespread climate change as early as 2050.

As the climate becomes harsher for us, it also becomes inhospitable to the animals that Irwin spent his life trying to get us to care about. Last year, a team from the National Autonomous University of Mexico presented a study that declared we were witnessing the sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history. This year, that study – based on data from the International Union of Conservation of Nature – gained further credence when World Wildlife Fund presented its Living Planet Index, showing that populations of vertebrates had declined by 60 per cent on average over the last 40 years. In Irwin’s Australia, the Great Barrier Reef is dying. Baby coral in the Reef have declined by 89 per cent because of mass bleaching in 2016 and 2017. It’s worrying news, and perhaps the only thing that would have been capable of wiping the cheerful grin from Irwin’s face.

On his shows, Irwin would literally bleed, sweat, and even break bones, but he never lost his smile, so much did he love his quest to showcase the magnificent creatures of the wild. He believed that if he got enough people to care about respecting nature, the planet would prosper. It seems like we’ve forgotten his message, and as we stare at a grim future of our own making, a reminder would not be amiss. In his memoir, Irwin says, “We don’t own the planet Earth, we belong to it.” We would do well to remember that.