The Irwin Factor in Conservation Leadership

16 08 2008
© Channel 10 Australia

© Channel 10 Australia

In 2007 we were compelled to comment on an essential ingredient in the challenge to convince people that conserving biodiversity is in their best interest – inspirational and celebrity characters highlighting the extinction crisis.

Just how important is it to have charismatic conservation champions with celebrity status beating the drum for change? I used to think that it was essential (and some of my colleagues agree) if the majority of the human population is to alter destructive behaviour, especially considering that most people do not read the scientific literature (hence, media such as blogs that can appeal to a much wider audience).

However, there is a danger that overtly sensational representation of these issues may stimulate nothing at all, or even counter-productive behaviour. Indeed, this was our argument concerning Aussie ‘larrikin’ Steve Irwin. Our letter entitled Dangers of sensationalizing conservation biology published in the journal Conservation Biology was a response to Sébastien Paquette’s letter entitled Importance of the ‘Crocodile Hunter’ phenomenon published in the same journal.

An abbreviated version of our letter follows:

The global biodiversity crisis that spawned the discipline of conservation biology is closer to the forefront of the average person’s thoughts than it has ever been. The shift in popular thinking about conservation issues is in no small way due to the impressive and relevant work of conservation scientists worldwide. It is good science that provides the focus for the conservation spotlight, which continues to gain in intensity with problems such as anthropogenically driven climate change. That said, acknowledgement must be given to the power of advocacy wielded by people who have been successful in promoting awareness of conservation matters in the mass media.

The power of media, such as television, to influence public thought on conservation issues is, however, both a blessing and a curse. Its great benefit is that it promotes awareness of the natural world among the urbanized citizenry who are disconnected from the plight of biodiversity. Modern “nature celebrities” such as Sir David Attenborough, Jacques Cousteau, Al Gore, and Steve Irwin have fostered and promoted an appreciation and fascination of natural systems by people who would never otherwise have the opportunity to observe them. The curse, however, is subtler and insidious. The overarching requirement of popular entertainment is that it be eye-catching, sensational, and even eccentric if it is to attract sufficient attention to survive.

The recent death of celebrity naturalist Steve Irwin has resulted in a perceived martyrdom at a scale never before witnessed in conservation circles. His popularity was undeniable, but his larrikin style of advocacy was a two-edged sword. His often unconventional antics, while entertaining, did not necessarily lead the viewer to adopt a greater respect and understanding for the species on show. One only needs to cite the pointless and abhorrent killing and mutilation of stingrays along Queensland’s coast in the weeks following his death (acts which were, quite rightly, summarily condemned by Irwin’s organization) to question at least some of his fans’ true empathy of conservation issues.

Irwin’s misunderstanding of fundamental ecological processes such as forest fragmentation, how invasive and domestic species can damage biodiversity values, and the sustainable use of wildlife were particularly dangerous because of his ability to sway the public’s (and the their elected politicians’) opinions. With such vast influence comes great responsibility. One particularly ironic example is that the Crocodile Hunter vehemently opposed any notion of sustainable harvest of crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus) in Australia, convincing many Australians (including politicians) likewise. Yet harvest as a management tool was in this case almost certainly responsible for saving saltwater crocodiles from near extinction. The highly controlled market for farmed skins essentially removed all incentive for illegal harvest. Furthermore, harvest models grounded in more than 20 years of painstakingly collected monitoring data show that a safari-hunting proposal posed no threat to population viability.

Irwin’s opinions about sustainable use of wildlife in general (e.g., the use of wild kangaroos for pet meat and human consumption) are well known, even though all available evidence suggests that in an increasingly drought-prone continent such as Australia, a reduced reliance on traditional hard-hoofed pastoralism would have remarkable benefits for the country’s economy, threatened biotas, and fragile soils. In this light it is somewhat disconcerting that even the University of Queensland posthumously bestowed upon him the title of adjunct professor, an academic laurel normally recognizing years of scholarly endeavour, despite his rudimentary understanding of and often incorrect statements about ecological processes.

The dangers of Irwin-style advocacy strike deeper than the just the relative costs and benefits of sensationalist media and political sway. His legacy was built predominately on capturing, handling, and therefore stressing normally reclusive and clandestine species for the benefit of public entertainment. The increasing scrutiny of field biologists by animal ethics committees stands in stark contrast to the brazen and sometimes ethically questionable methods Irwin employed to invigorate typically quiescent species – eventually to his undoing. Although never formally charged with ethical wrongdoing, even in circumstances requiring investigation, it is highly implausible that any academic or governmental animal ethics committee would have sanctioned such behaviour by their own researchers.

An excessive dumbing down of conservation science for the masses is, in our opinion, naïve because it risks further distancing lay people from the real and often harsh natural world ecologists work to understand. Advocacy in conservation biology desperately needs charismatic champions, but it does not need more overt sensationalism – we have no shortage of television programs and documentaries highlighting the dangers, curiosities, and bizarre aspects of animal and plant life. What we need are intelligent, informed, and respectful champions (we cite some above) that responsibly promote understanding and respect of the natural world, a realm from which the majority of our 6.8 billion-strong population has become largely dispossessed.

Most of the conservation biologists I spoke to on this subject agreed with us, but I think the letter was preaching to the choir. Interestingly, I recently came across this article by Dan Brockington entitled Celebrity conservation: interpreting the Irwins. In reference to our conclusions, Brockington stated:

Interestingly, while Bradshaw and colleagues may well be right with respect to Irwin’s grasp of ecology, there are fewer grounds for hope in the ability of intelligent programs to educate.

Brockington’s excellent article went on to conclude:

But what are the longer term impacts of celebrity conservation? Celebrity conservation enables people to cope with the inevitable alienation from nature that life in an industrial, urbanised world entails. Watching conservation or wildlife films, or following the works of celebrity conservationists, allows people to live conservationists’ achievements vicariously and fulfils profound needs to reconnect with, and relate to, the wild. But this has considerable implications for the conservationists’ call to restore relationships with the wild, and to forge the strong personal relationships with nature that have so inspired generations of conservationists, including Irwin himself. For relations with nature which are forged through watching celebrity conservationists are para-social relations, with a nature we do not know, intimate because of the proximity of the camera, exciting because of the presenter’s antics, and instantly extinguishable at the press of a button on the remote.

… Their [Dunn et al. 2006] work suggests that the celebrification of conservation, for all the funds it can raise, and the attention and airtime it generates, is not challenging a larger withdrawal from personal experience of conservation causes. This trend could undermine the vitality of environmentalism.

… Steve Irwin’s work, the entertainment he provided with wildlife as props, and his conservation message, were products of forces much more powerful than his personality, or even the profits he could realise for the companies which distributed his programs. Bindi’s work too, if not undertaken by her, would need to be undertaken by someone. The conservationists’ dilemma is that, while a bird in the hand is likely to be worth much more than a thousand on the Discovery Channel, thousands — perhaps millions — more people are likely to be switching on their televisions in order to get close to nature rather than experiencing it for themselves.

I stand corrected. Even if Steve Irwin had not been as controversial or was more informed about the species and systems on which he commented, Brockington’s conclusion is that it would have changed few people’s behaviour anyway. What a sad comment then on our capacity to change for the better.

CJA Bradshaw

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5 responses

11 04 2011
Crocodiles, spiders and leeches «

[…] As a conservation ecologist, I find it intriguing that ways to slow biodiversity loss are sometimes, at least superficially, counter-intuitive. It also reminds us that our response to the biodiversity crisis must span more than the purely biological fields – economics, political science, energy technology, sociology, anthropology, psychology, geography and philosophy also play massively important roles (Sodhi and Ehrlich 2010). While I doubt that I will have another opportunity or desire to stress myself quite to that extent again merely out of academic interest, I consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to get up close and personal with the world’s largest reptile [addendum: and not in the way that a certain celebrity yob did]. […]


24 01 2011
Condoms instead of nature reserves «

[…] Park, Hamber Provincial Park, Steve Irwin Park [my addendum – even the mention of this man is an insult to biodiversity conservation]… the list goes on. There is no durable sanctuary from economic growth. Any park that is made by […]


6 08 2010
Conservation quotes: Attenborough to Irwin «

[…] (for a little perspective on what I would consider the George W. Bush of conservation biology, Steve Irwin, see a previous post here). […]


7 05 2009
Celebrities actually doing something positive for conservation? «

[…] mess we’re in” (well, I am a cynic by nature). I have blogged before on the general irrelevancy of celebrity conservation. But then I looked closer and saw that this was more than just an ‘awareness’ campaign […]


21 08 2008
Corey Bradshaw

See related discussion here.


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