Death of a Crocodile Hunter

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TV host Steve Irwin and his wife, Terri, with a nine-foot female alligator at his Australia Zoo in Queensland, Australia.

Australian naturalist Steve Irwin was famous for getting up close and personal with his deadly subjects. He leapt fearlessly on to the backs of man-eating crocodiles, wrestled Komodo Dragons and deftly juggled snakes as they sought to plunge their venomous fangs into his arm or face, all the while keeping up a lively commentary for the cameras of his multimillion-dollar documentary operation. Scratched, bitten and bruised, he would display his wounds like trophies, casually using gaffer tape to bind up a severe bite from a large saltwater crocodile that he had been wrestling in a mangrove swamp. And the Crocodile Hunter understood how his risk-taking made him a cult hero to millions in the 130 countries where his films aired: his fans aped his trademark cry of "Crikey, he nearly got me!" and flocked to his Australia Zoo in Queensland on Australia's east coast.

"Steve Irwin's all pretty interesting on the telly or in the movie and that, but by crikey, it's great when he gets bitten," he once told Australia's ABC television. "Now and again I do get bitten. But I haven't been killed. And it's that, you know, that sense of morbidity that people do have. There's no use sticking your head in the sand and going, 'Oh, no, they're only here because, you know, I talk well.' Nah, man, they wanna see me come unglued."

This morning, at 11am Australian time, things finally came unglued for the 44-year-old as he was shooting a documentary segment on stingrays. Snorkeling on Batt Reef , a stretch of the Great Barrier Reef about 15km from Port Douglas in North Queensland, Irwin happened to swim over a large ray which, startled, whipped its barbed tail upwards into his chest. He died instantly. Veteran marine wildlife documentary maker Ben Cropp, who has spent hundreds of hours filming on Batt Reef, says Irwin had come too close to a bull ray. Citing a colleague who saw footage of the attack, Cropp says Irwin had accidently boxed the animal in, causing it to attack. "It stopped and twisted and threw up its tail with the spike, and it caught him in the chest," says Cropp. "It's a defensive thing. It's like being stabbed with a dirty dagger." Says Cropp: "It's a one-in-a-million thing. I have swum with many rays, and I have only had one do that to me."

Fellow crew members dragged Irwin from the water and began cardio-pulmonary resuscitation while racing their boat Croc One to meet a rescue helicopter. Despite their efforts, he was pronounced dead at Cairns Base Hospital at noon. Outside the hospital his longtime friend and producer John Stainton said, "He died doing what he loves best, and left this world in a happy and peaceful state of mind. He would have said, Crocs rule."

Some in the animal conservation world felt it was perhaps inevitable that this larger-than-life figure would someday take one too many risks. "He had a long history of doing this kind of thing with dangerous animals; some people do these things and get away with it, and other times your number comes up," says Professor Grahame Webb, a crocodile expert who operates a crocodile park in Darwin. "He had huge experience with crocodiles and snakes and reptiles, but stingrays are quite different." Webb, who supports crocodile conservation but had clashed with Irwin over issues to do with sustainable development, believes Irwin had played a significant role in ensuring crocodiles were protected. "Conserving koala bears is easy. When it comes to conserving the nasties like spiders, snakes and crocodiles, and things that kill you and eat you, it's a different story to get people to value those animals. People say, 'What the hell are you conserving them for?' and he made a strong contribution in making people think a lot more about the values of conserving these animals."

Other wildlife conservation groups and experts were quick to pay tribute to Irwin. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals hailed him as a "modern-day Noah." Said RSPCA Queensland chief executive Mark Townend: "His loss will be felt by animal lovers not just in Australia, but all over the world." Queensland Museum director Dr. Ian Galloway described Irwin as "a dedicated naturalist who was actively committed to highlighting the plight of threatened species, and championing the cause of conservation. Steve Irwin was a special person whose energy and enthusiasm encouraged a whole new audience to better understand and become involved in conservation and science. He will be sorely missed." Prime Minister John Howard echoed the sentiments of many of his fellow Australians, saying the country had lost "a wonderful and colorful son."

Irwin is survived by his Oregon-born wife Terri and their children, two-year-old Bob and eight-year-old Bindi Sue.