The curious phrase “crocodile tears” might need redefining in the wake of the death of Australia’s famed “Crocodile Hunter,” Steve Irwin. Shakespeare coined the term, an allusion to the Romans’ belief that crocodiles weep as they eat their prey, to describe an insincere display of grief, false tears.

But there was nothing false about the grief expressed by millions of people worldwide when they heard that the eccentric, risk-happy Aussie naturalist had finally run out of luck, stabbed in the heart on the Great Barrier Reef last Monday by a startled stingray. Even many people with long-standing reservations about Irwin’s antics found themselves, like Australia’s prime minister, feeling “quite shocked and distressed” at the news. Death, it appears, has lent the Crocodile Hunter a seriousness that eluded him in life.

Stephen Robert Irwin was all too easy to mock. With his broad Australian accent and trademark khaki shirt, shorts and hiking boots, which he wore even for a meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush, he cut a figure so clownish it made many Australians cringe. On his hit television show for the Animal Planet network, his enthusiasm frequently came off as childlike to the point of simple-mindedness. After he dangled his month-old son near a crocodile he was feeding at his zoo in Queensland, the New York Daily News ran the headline: “Steve Irwin — Australian for stupid.” His catch-cries of “Crikey!” and “You little bewdy!” fueled dozens of parodies. It was difficult, often, to believe that anyone in the field of wildlife conservation could take this overgrown Peter Pan of the bush seriously.

But Irwin was also easy to underestimate, as the popularity of his act and the affection infusing those parodies showed. His apparent innocence and boundless exuberance — no stage act, according to people who knew him — proved refreshing, an antidote not just to news of wars and disasters but to television wildlife programs that had grown both staid and stale over the years. Viewers, particularly in the United States, warmed to him, sometimes for not very complimentary reasons. As one American blogger wrote on an Internet exchange in July: “Every country has stupid people but Australians are the funniest.” Irwin, however, was shrewd enough to capitalize on that affectionate bias, living to see his shows reach a global audience of half a billion, including many fans in Japan.

He was also shrewd enough to know that an educator can teach only if people are listening. And Irwin was, despite all the buffoonery, an educator at heart, as zealous as any missionary. The buffoonery was purpose-driven: He wanted the audience that it attracted. He never stopped saying that he wanted as many people as possible, especially children, to know about and appreciate wild creatures so that they have more concern for the animals’ fate in a changing world. “Crocodile Hunter” was a misnomer, in a way: Irwin didn’t hunt crocodiles for their meat or hides or trophy value — or for compelling TV footage, although he got that, too. He rounded them up to be relocated when their native habitats were threatened by development.

There is no question that many wildlife experts, perhaps put off by his attention-stealing showmanship, found Irwin’s “up close and personal” approach worrying. This week, Virginia McKenna of the Born Free Foundation gently expressed reservations even as she conveyed condolences to his family. “It’s not how it was meant to be,” she wrote of what she sees as a loss of fear of wild animals, attributable to Irwin.

Others have criticized him for “manhandling” animals and invading their dwelling places with camera crews, helicopters, bright lights and loud noises. Some suggest that it was precisely this invasive approach to the normally placid stingray that caused his death.

At the same time, though, the majority of Irwin’s colleagues around the world have gone out of their way to pay tribute to his work. The British nature writer and broadcaster David Bellamy described him as one of the greatest performers, and also an “extremely good natural historian.” The head of the Queensland branch of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals called him “a modern-day Noah.” “Steve really knew what he was doing,” the American naturalist and former zoo director Jack Hanna told CNN. “He was one of the finest reptile people in the world.”

In 1998, Steve Irwin said: “Our whole passion to be on this planet is to educate people about wildlife. I will die doing that.”

He did die doing that. And considering the astonishing outpouring of grief this week after his freakish demise, it would be no surprise if even the crocodiles were shedding a few tears. Real ones, at that.

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