Despite most Australian never actually watching an episode of The Crocodile Hunter (it only briefly screened here on Channel Ten) or visiting Australia Zoo, or even seeing Steve Irwin being interviewed (he was interviewed mostly on US television), his death seemed to have a more profound effect on Australians than the passing of virtually any other celebrity in recent times, with the possible exception of Princess Diana.

Irwin was truly one of a kind. Part Aussie larrikin and part marketing genius, at the time of his death Irwin was the most famous Australian in the world. While Mel Gibson, Russell Crowe and Rupert Murdoch are certainly well known, Irwin’s tragic death was front page news in places as far flung as Norway and the Middle East.

With Irwin’s passing Australia lost a major export and one of its favourite sons. Irwin’s marketing genius was subtle, the constant khaki garb, broad accent and colloquial language became one of Australia’s most well-known international brands. Irwin parlayed his documentary success into movies, merchandise and of course, the highly successful Australia Zoo on the Sunshine Coast. According to BRW, while Irwin earned $4 million last year (far less than the Wiggles who pulled in $50 million or Nicole Kidman at $23 million) his influence was far greater than Kidman or Jackman.

Unlike others blessed with wealth, Irwin didn’t make donations to improve his image, but instead created his own charity Wildlife Warriors “to safeguard Australia’s…wild animals and their habitats”. Since his death, Wildlife Warriors has been bombarded with donations, causing its website to fail for most of yesterday. The Age also noted that Irwin also “bought huge tracts of land in Australia and abroad to protect and restore habitat for native species.” In making his purchases, Irwin “met the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, which raises money to buy Australian land for conservation, to discuss strategies and identify which land was important.”

Of course the praise hasn’t been universal. Even in death, Irwin’s larger than life image polarised critics and fans. Germaine Greer popped up on several news programs and papers criticising Irwin. Perhaps Greer was envious by all the publicity garnered by Irwin. If Greer were to pass away, the story would likely struggle to make the feel-good story at the end of the nightly news.

However, of all the Irwin anecdotes that have been told since his passing, perhaps the one that best symbolises his notoriety was the story that just before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 CNN showed an Iraqi family preparing for the onslaught. The TV cameras zoomed into the living room of the family who were watching TV. Rather than tuning into CNN or al-Jazeera, on the screen was none other than the Crocodile Hunter.

Peter Fray

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