Steve Irwin: He Gave Attention to One of Nature's Saltiest Big Boys

The endangered saltwater crocodile received a helping hand from Irwin.

The late icon of conservation Steve “The Crocodile Hunter” Irwin would have been 57 years old on Friday, and Google chose the day to mark his extraordinary life with a touching Google Doodle slideshow. Irwin was deeply involved with animals, reptiles especially, from an early age, as his parents ran a reptile park when was a child in Australia.

As you do, he eventually began to wrestle crocodiles, nature’s saltiest, crustiest lords of the mud, proving that what he’d do later in life was no stunt for TV.

Irwin’s work off camera involved volunteering at Queensland’s East Coast Crocodile Management Program. With that group, he captured and relocated the endangered saltwater crocodile, objectively the biggest, and arguably the meanest, reptile on Earth.

“We’re searching for a super croc!” Irwin says in “Search for a Super Croc,” an episode in the fifth season of The Crocodile Hunter that first aired on Animal Planet in July 2004.

The episode pulls together a crack team of experienced crocodile experts who use the latest technology (at the time) to search for the saltwater crocodile, a secretive creature.

If Irwin hadn’t brought more attention to the hypercarnivorous apex predator, it might have been harder to find — though not impossible. In fact, when his show aired, the salty croc population was booming in Australia, and they were interacting quite negatively with humans at record rates.

The saltwater crocodile is now of “least concern” on the IUCN “Red List” of Threatened Species, thanks to conservation efforts. However, its range — which once spread from Southeast Asia to northern Australia — is much narrower than it used to be. It’s nowhere to be found in Thailand, Laos, or Vietnam, according to research conducted from the early 1980s up to the early 2000s.

maximo saltwater crocodile
Its name is Maximo.

The reason saltwater crocodiles aren’t as widespread as they used to be? It’s nothing as eye-opening as some sort of illegal trade around their skin; it’s habitat loss. As the advancement of human infrastructure and construction spreads, there is less natural ecosystem available for not just the crocs, but also their prey. The same can be said of animals in North America, as subdivisions in places like Colorado back up to Mountain Lion country.

When it comes to saltwater crocodiles endangering human life — a result of that human expansion into previously untamed lands — a 2005 study in the journal Wilderness & Environmental Medicine showed that the rate of crocodile attacks increased each decade. Linked with this rise is the growth of the wild crocodile population, which became protected in 1971 and exploded soon after. From 5,000 wild crocs in 1971, the number grew to 75,000 in 2000. Crikey!

From 1971 to 2004, there were 62 attacks in Australia, and 63 percent of those happened in the Norther Territory, home to the saltwater croc. In 2013, The Guardian reported that the Northern Territory claimed 62 total attacks between ‘71 and ‘13, with 18 attacks being deadly.

This animation of Friday's Google Doodle slideshow shows Irwin's life in several touching frames.

Irwin didn’t die from a crocodile attack, however. The beloved conservationist was stung many times very quickly by a short-tail stingray in 2006 while he was snorkeling in shallow water in Batt Reef near Port Douglas, Queensland, in Australia.

His legacy, in addition to moving an entire generation of people to think more carefully and thoughtfully about wildlife, might also be the continued preservation of of one of nature’s baddest, saltiest creatures.

See also: Scientists Have Named a Crocodile After Lemmy of Motörhead