THE news that the naturalist Steve Irwin was killed yesterday, when his heart was pierced by the barb of a stingray during the filming of a new underwater wildlife programme, has produced an outpouring of grief that even the khaki-clad Crocodile Hunter himself would have been shocked at.
In his native Australia, TV channels and radio stations were swamped with grief-stricken callers desperate to air their views on a man who had, through his fearlessness, dedication to wildlife and cheeky, charming personality, become a national icon.
"I feel absolutely devastated because I actually feel the same way I felt - and I haven't felt like this in a long time - when Princess Diana had been killed," one caller told ABC. "It's gut-wrenching."
The veteran wildlife broadcaster David Bellamy yesterday told The Scotsman that he cried when he heard the news. "My heart goes out to his family and to the people of Australia," he said. "He put Australia on the map of wildlife exploration and taught the world so much.
"People criticised him for taking risks, but people always criticise those who are the best at their game. It's pure jealousy. In the early days he was even accused of copying me, but if I were anywhere near as good as him I would be delighted."
It is not the first time news of Steve Irwin's demise has been circulated. Reptile expert and TV presenter Mark O'Shea, of O'Shea's Big Adventure, points out that several times in the past false reports had been put out on radio stations and on the internet.
"Initially I thought this could be another one of those hoaxes that goes round," he said. "But when I checked and found it was real, I was shocked. Absolutely shocked. Especially the manner in which it happened."
Steve Irwin was unique. Loud, brash, forever clad in a sweaty khaki shorts-and-shirt combo, he was the quintessential macho Australian bloke, always quick with a quip and fast to prove how brave he could be, whether it was delving into the jaws of a saltwater crocodile or attempting to tame a rattlesnake. But his tough Aussie exterior concealed a man who dedicated his life to animals, raised awareness for all manner of creatures great and small, and was a passionate conservationist.
Irwin was born on 22 February, 1962, in the suburbs of Melbourne, and critters were part of his life almost from the very beginning. His father, a reptile fanatic, bought his son a scrub python for his sixth birthday, and when he was eight he moved with his parents, Lyn and Bob, to Queensland, where they started the Queensland Reptile and Fauna Park. At nine he was handling crocodiles, and soon went on to a career as a crocodile trapper, removing the reptiles from the populated areas of Queensland's east coast to make it safer for humans.
Following his parents' retirement in 1991, they turned the management of the reptile park over to their young and enthusiastic son. He renamed it the Australia Zoo, and while it was ultimately dedicated to the protection of saltwater crocodiles, it also grew to house a menagerie of Australian wildlife including many snakes, tortoises, koalas, wombats, Tasmanian devils and otters, as well as a rainforest aviary full of exotic birds. It was here, while filming a TV commercial, that he first caught the eye of the director John Stainton, who encouraged Irwin to try his hand as a presenter.
A year later, Irwin met his American wife-to-be, Terri, at the park, and they married soon afterwards. It was the couple's own honeymoon, during which they went crocodile-trapping and were filmed in their attempts, that provided the footage for the first-ever episode of The Crocodile Hunter.
The show was an instant hit, combining Irwin's quirky, off-the-cuff presenting style with his daredevil antics, and was soon being snapped up by TV channels around the world. In a typical show, Irwin could be seen wrestling with a cross croc, rehoming a deadly snake or being bitten by a parrot.
"He brought the presenter-led genre out into the open," says O'Shea. "He was trying to educate and inform, and act as an ambassador for some of the more unpopular animals. He strongly believed in what he was doing."
Wildlife TV presenter Chris Packham agrees: "His style and approach were not one I would follow myself, but he brought a lot of young people on board, and once they are interested in conservation then maybe we can call on them to help."
Irwin had hit upon a winning formula. He was signed up to the Discovery channel and travelled the world, filming in locations such as the Himalayas, the Yangtze River, Borneo and South Africa's Kruger National Park. So wide was his appeal, his shows were eventually screened in 130 countries.
He once said that, out of thousands of encounters with animals, it was an experience in England's Howletts Wild Animal Park that was his most memorable, when he went "one-on-one with the gorillas and was accepted as one of their own".
It became clear that while he might have enjoyed the fame, he wasn't just in it for the money. "He made a significant amount of money and put it back into wildlife, back into his zoo, back into [animal] conservation," says O'Shea. "He didn't make lots of money and go and buy a big boat and sun himself somewhere. He was somebody who earned his living from wildlife and put the money back into wildlife. You have to respect that."
But as his fame grew, Irwin also courted controversy. Two years ago he came in for criticism after he took Bob, his one-month-old son, into a crocodile enclosure and held him in one arm while he proceeded to feed a crocodile with the other. Television viewers were shocked, comparing his actions to those of Michael Jackson when he dangled his son over a balcony in Germany. But Irwin was unrepentant over his actions, claiming he was in control of the situation the entire time and refusing to apologise, even after he was visited at home by concerned police officers.
He was also criticised after a visit to Antarctica to make a documentary, where it was claimed he came too close to seals, penguins and whales, disturbing their natural habitat. No charges were ever filed. He had his fair share of detractors, concerned that his gung-ho TV presenting was unrealistic and dangerous.
"He clearly took a lot of risks, and [being on] television encouraged him to do that," says Ray Mears, survival expert and TV presenter. "It's a shame that TV audiences need that to be attracted to wildlife."
In general, however, he was viewed as a modern-day Noah, describing himself as a "wildlife warrior" and founding his own conservation foundation, Wildlife Warriors Worldwide. He bought large areas of land in Australia, Fiji, the United States and Vanuatu, hoping to turn them into national parks, and campaigned tirelessly against the illegal trade of animal products, including exotic furs and ivories. He even discovered a new species, a type of snapping turtle that now bears his name, Elseya irwini - Irwin's turtle.
Bellamy viewed him as a consummate professional. "He knew exactly what he was doing, he had a tremendous respect for the animals he dealt with and that's why he could educate, entertain and inform us so well. Sadly, I never had the chance to meet him, but I did watch him perform. He was magical. I bet the crocodiles are crying crocodile tears for him, because their main backer has passed on."
As well as his love for his animals, he had his young family. His wife Terri was often at his side during filming, even co-starring in a movie, The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course, which parodied his much-loved character. His daughter, Bindi Sue, just eight years old and already a veteran of his TV show, was filming her own TV series, Jungle Girl, for the Discovery Kids channel when the tragic accident happened.
Yesterday, as Australia began to come to terms with the loss of one of their most famous and well-loved exports, and crowds of mourners started gathering at the gates of the Australia Zoo in acknowledgement of the sad loss, John Howard, the Australian prime minister, paid his own tribute.
"I am quite shocked and distressed at Steve Irwin's sudden, untimely and freakish death," he said. "It's a huge loss to Australia. He was a wonderful character. He was a passionate environmentalist. He brought joy and entertainment and excitement to millions of people."
His legacy and his love for animals was best explained by Irwin himself. "I have no fear of losing my life," he said once. "If I have to save a koala or a crocodile or a snake, mate, I will save it."