Wildlife icon Steve Irwin was not a conventional conservationist. His television show Crocodile Hunter featured him dangerously up close to creatures well known for being deadly. He was killed yesterday by a stingray when he went too close. For a man who swam up to unsuspecting crocodiles and rode on their backs and who lay on his stomach beside poisonous snakes, the unkind might say his death was nature's way of teaching respect. Such people are missing the point, though: Irwin was so intensely respectful of all around him that he had no fear about doing such things. His mission was, after all, to educate about the world around us and this he did through his family zoo in Australia, television shows and movie. The message was clear: all animals, whether dangerous to humans or not, have a place in the world and must be protected at all costs. Irwin's objectives have been shared by naturalists the world over for generations; what marked him apart was his infectious passion and enthusiasm for what we would call his work, but which he thought of as his life. Those attributes were instantly apparent even to the casual viewer of Crocodile Hunter: Irwin's animated commentary and undisguised excitement at being among creatures he loved shone through. He was hunting down animals not in the name of sport or pleasure but to show us their personalities and worth to the environment. His methods in doing this were not those we were used to from wildlife programmes. The frequent cries of 'Crikey!', shameless self-promotion and antics drew an international following, in the process raising awareness of conservation issues. Sometimes he may have taken his lessons too far, as two years ago when he was criticised for feeding a crocodile while holding his month-old baby. For someone who had been around the giant reptiles since he was a boy, such an activity may not have seemed unusual; to those raised on stories of how dangerous the creatures can be, it was reckless behaviour. Irwin's reaction was typically candid: there was no danger and, besides, you can never teach children about their environment early enough. Right or wrong, his point applies to much about our fast-changing world. Be it pollution, what we eat or protecting what we have around us, the learning process has to start sooner rather than later. Irwin's dedication to his beliefs was foremost in the glowing tributes that flooded in from around the world to his family. As apparent, though, was the fact that the world has lost a rare kind of person; someone so enthusiastic about what they do that they effortlessly win others over to their way of thinking. With 21st century society putting so many pressures on our environment, on that score Irwin will be sorely missed.