What exactly is ‘True’ Conservation?

As you know, Steve Irwin was Animal Planet’s beloved Australian “Crocodile Hunter” whose untimely death saddened many of us. Some called him a true conservationist, others did not. Some thought of him as a true warrior for wildlife, others found him to be silly and eccentric to say the least.

I was a great fan of Steve Irwin and I want to tell you why.

Humans have long viewed wildlife as resources to be used to their own advantage, without regard to the needs of the wildlife itself. This is an attitude has brought a great many species of wildlife to the brink of extinction.

As humans now rush to stop the onslaught, conservationists around the world have begun arguing about which approach to conservation is the most meritorious; meaning, which approach works the best?

Many argue that good science and education are the primary tools needed in the battle to save our remaining wildlife, and it is hard to argue with that. I agree whole-heartedly on every level except one: as a psychologist I know that humans need to be passionately engaged with wildlife before they will put forth even a smidgen of effort to help save them. Without a hands-on approach to wildlife where wildlife is felt and we are touched by them in turn, conservation falls on deaf ears.

We are not moved to save something we know nothing about.

Even when we see wildlife on TV or read about them in a picture book, we do not automatically rush to their defense. Only when we can somehow form a personal relationship with wildlife, where we come to love them, only then will we feel the urge to save them.

It is disheartening but true

In today’s world, it really boils down to whose voice is loudest and whose voice sticks with us the longest. Steve Irwin’s behavior was unconventional – and passionate – and loud – and, by cricky, it sticks with us long after the television has been turned off and the lights dimmed. Which is the point!

Irwin clearly engaged us in a dialogue about wildlife with his expressive eyes, his undaunting curiosity, his tirades, and with his astonishingly unconventional approach in the field. He ate, slept, and lived conservation and we all knew it. We loved it. We ate it up and I, for one, never once dozed off while Steve Irwin was on the air.

That said, I wish Steve had talked with me before that now-famous incident where he fed a crocodile close-up with his month old infant son in his arms. He obviously did not anticipate the public reaction to his implied irresponsible parental behavior. From another perspective, however, it was very normal behavior from a man who grew up with crocs and who wanted his children to be equally fearless of them; which is something that comes from constant and close behavior of the kind that normal parents in suburbia cannot even fathom.

But humans are a judgmental lot, and they are quick to judge even in the face of little or no evidence. Camera angles made that episode with Steve’s infant son seem as though he was right on top of the croc when he was not. He talked in detail about that after-the-fact. The camera lied and we believed it and that is what every photographer everywhere must understand.

Our lenses express our vision but not necessarily reality, and certainly not someone else’s reality. We can actually bias reality quite convincingly just by changing our lens and/or our composition to include or exclude certain things.

Steve and his team of videographers wanted to infuse drama into the father/infant son scene and they did just that. It looked so dramatic that Animal Planet viewers world-wide were shocked.

Jumping out of our skin

Isn’t that what it is all about? Isn’t it about making us jump out of our skin? We remember jumping out of our skin. We do NOT remember boring discourses about landscapes and places that we have never personally visited. We remember what touches us emotionally and Steve Irwin touched us, by cricky.

I wish the world were not so ignorant about wildlife. I wish that giant corporations were not trashing wildlife habitats for business profits, and I wish that people would stop destroying the last remaining vestiges of marshland on our fragile coasts. I also wish that schools the world over would posture conservation as a core program of study beginning in the elementary grades.

But nobody is listening, and nobody is paying the slightest bit of attention to the average conservation message. The fact is, they haven’t been paying attention for years. We are digging ever deeper for oil, we are building ever bigger cars, we building ever-taller skyscrapers – there is no end in sight.

To get the message out there we have to yell louder and dance harder, like Steve Irwin did. Whether you like it or not, someone has got to do it before we humans take the whole planet down with us.

Instead of arguing about who does it better, I say just get out there and do your thing – speak your peace, yell if you have to! – but most of all, model conservation with all the passion that your old bones can muster, and then some.

Time is of the essence.

Saltwater Crocodile in Queensland, Australia

This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. © 2010 Dr. Ellen K. Rudolph. All rights reserved.

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